Remarks for the National Indian Gaming Association's Winter Summit

Greetings Members of the Board and Tribal leaders, and welcome to the National Indian Gaming Association 2008 Winter Legislative Summit. I am pleased to be a part of this important event, and would personally like to extend my thanks to Ernie Stevens, Chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association. With Chairman Steven’s able leadership, NIGA has been a great advocate on many important issues facing Native people, including health care, housing, education and economic development, in addition to Indian gaming.

Since the opening of the second session of the 110th Congress, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee has seen a flurry of legislative activity. As some of you may know, the Committee’s hearing on the President’s proposed 2009 budget, scheduled for the 14th, had to be cancelled at the last minute because the Indian Health Care bill came to the floor that same morning. Although we were unable to hear the testimony from federal agencies and tribal advocates, we will be taking all written testimony into consideration as we present the Committee’s views and estimates on the budget to the Committee on the Budget.

[If S.1200 has passed the Senate:] Today is a very special day for Native people all across the country. After several days of debate the Senate has passed S.1200, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act Amendments of 2007 by a vote of ________. With Senate passage, S.1200 will now head over to the House of Representatives for consideration. I would encourage you to contact your Member of Congress and urge them to favorably consider, and to quickly pass S.1200 and send it to the President for his signature.

[If S.1200 is still under debate in the Senate:] Today the Senate continues its consideration of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act Amendments of 2007 yet again, picking up where we left off on the 14th. As the Republican Manager of that bill, I will keep my remarks brief so that I can return to the Senate floor.

As everyone in this room knows too well, efforts to enact comprehensive reform for the Indian Health Care Improvement Act are not new. The Indian Affairs Committee has shepherded several Indian health care reauthorization bills through multiple Congresses, and the history of this legislation is extensive. This bill is of great importance to the health and well being of Indian and Native peoples and tribes across the country. So much has happened in the health care industry over the past decade, and so much has changed both within and outside of Indian country in the field of health care, that we can no longer put off enactment of this legislation. We must take the Indian Health Service and tribal health care systems out of 20th Century and into the 21st. We all look forward to the day this legislation is signed by the President.

The Indian Affairs Committee has also been considering another reauthorization bill—this one relating to Indian housing. It has been nearly twelve years since Congress enacted the Native American Housing and Self Determination Act, better known as NAHASDA. The goal of NAHASDA was to consolidate several separate federal housing programs benefitting American Indians and Alaska Natives into a single Indian Housing Block Grant, and to allow the tribes themselves to design and implement their own housing programs.

So NAHASDA is very much part and parcel of the federal Indian policy of self-determination—which is clearly the most successful and positive federal policy ever conceived for our Nation’s Indian people. Since the enactment of NAHASDA, Native governments have embraced the responsibility and authority for the design and implementation of Federal Indian housing programs so as to meet the specific needs of their own communities. Tribal implementation of NAHASDA has increased both the level and the quality of housing services to tribal communities across the country.

Over the past decade, Indian tribes have built or rehabilitated some 60,000 housing units and accompanying infrastructure. This program has helped tribal governments take more responsibility for addressing the problems of insufficient and substandard housing within their communities. It has increased the rates of homeownership for Indian families through down payment assistance and other mechanisms.

NAHASDA has been a great success story for Indian Country. But that does not mean there is not more to be done. Alarming housing statistics do still remain. While American Indian and Alaska Native communities have chipped away at the chronic problems of substandard housing and housing shortages, reauthorizing and updating NAHASDA is a critical step toward resolving this far too common and unacceptable aspect of life within our Native communities.

There is still more work to be done on the Housing bill before it leaves the Senate, but I believe that this legislation presents a unique opportunity to further improve the management and efficiency of NAHASDA

On a final note, the Committee will soon work to address the critical need for law enforcement reform within Indian Country. Senator Dorgan and I and many of our colleagues are committed to working together to address the many problems facing the country’s Native law enforcement and detention systems, which are in many respects outdated and chronically under-funded. While there is much creative thinking and work to be done to craft legislation that will meaningfully improve these law enforcement programs and detention systems, I look forward to working with Chairman Dorgan, our Committee members and tribal leaders on that project as well.

Thank you again, NIGA, and I look forward to seeing you all very soon.