U.S. in agreement to provide Indian tribes $940 million for unmet service payments

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 17, 2015 4:26 PM

By Alex Dobuzinskis

(Reuters) - The U.S. government has reached a proposed agreement to provide $940 million to hundreds of American Indian tribes to cover unpaid costs for tribal management of federal services such as law enforcement and housing, officials said on Thursday.

The deal, which must be approved by a judge, was filed on Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and seeks to resolve a class-action lawsuit brought in 1990. It would address claims by about 600 tribes and tribal entities across the United States.

Officials described the deal as the latest in a series of moves by President Barack Obama's administration to resolve long-standing litigation by Native Americans against the federal government.

The government, under the Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975, has entered into contracts that allow tribes to operate and staff U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs programs for services such as law enforcement, forest management, road repairs, housing and education, officials said.

"We certainly have tried a lot of other approaches over the last 200 years," Kevin Washburn, assistant secretary of the interior for Indian affairs, said during a conference call with reporters.

He cited past efforts to culturally assimilate American Indians and end U.S. treaty obligations. "But experts have found that tribal self-determination is the best one so far," Washburn added.

While contracts commit the government to certain costs, from janitorial services to workers' compensation and payroll for tribal employees operating federal programs on reservations, Congress has at times capped the appropriations needed to fund those costs, officials said.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court found tribes were entitled to payments for the unmet costs, even though Congress capped funding. As a result, the U.S. government resumed paying full support costs tied to the contracts and negotiated with tribes over a settlement amount for previous years dating back to 1990, officials said.

Obama's latest budget request to Congress seeks mandatory, non-discretionary funding to support contract costs, which officials from his administration said would provide a long-term solution to the problem.

The $940 million settlement, however, does not need approval from Congress, Washburn said.

Individual tribes involved in the lawsuit need to review the proposed settlement. If they object, the deal's final approval could be delayed by a number of years, Washburn said.

A spokesman for the Navajo Nation, the largest American Indian tribe, could not be reached for comment.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Cooney)