WASHINGTON — U.S. Department of the Interior officials are in hot pursuit of a tribal infrastructure czar to oversee planning and implementation of the agency’s portion of the $13 billion in infrastructure funding within last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law. The goal: timely and appropriate distributions to tribal governments.
A full breakdown of tribal infrastructure funding under the law is here. A big chunk of money (approximately $10 billion) is not going to Interior for distribution, so tribes have asked for better coordination — including tribal infrastructure czars — at other agencies, including at the U.S. Departments of Transportation (roads) and Commerce (broadband) and Treasury (money).
“This is going to be a very demanding process, and we recognize that,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told Indigenous Wire earlier this year. “I think the most important thing is to make sure that we have the engagement and consultation from the very beginning.”
Buttigieg said his department’s Office of Tribal Government Affairs has been elevated to the rank of assistant secretary to help move the process forward.
Background: The U.S. Department of Treasury did a generally poor job of equitably distributing approximately $40 billion in pandemic funding to tribes under the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan, but Treasury leadership has been opposed to creating an office of tribal affairs to oversee consultation and other tribal issues. The Biden administration has made equity its mantra, so the lack of equity involving billions of dollars in funding to tribes has been hard to miss. Treasury has hired Native-focused employees and done increased Indian Country outreach, but its compliance rules and distribution formulas have received major scrutiny from poorer tribes and large land-based ones who feel they were shortchanged in the process.
Tribal officials have been unsuccessful to date in their calls for Treasury to establish a tribal office.
Interior officials have gone above and beyond in helping Treasury distribute its pandemic tribal funding, but Interior employees are stretched thin. Interior needs help, and the White House is pressing for it to do more in this midterm election year.
Interior needs to be focusing on how best to do its job for tribes and Native citizens — not overseeing the work of other agencies — people close to the administration tell Indigenous Wire.
Where we are now: Interior is moving forward with its tribal infrastructure czar plans, as well as hiring for a climate resiliency-focused czar. The tribal czar’s job description requires the hired employee to work on tribal infrastructure needs at agencies beyond Interior.
Some agencies are looking to beef up tribal infrastructure coordination through their work with the interagency White House Council on Native American Affairs.
Problem: Interior is also tasked with overseeing the White House Council on Native American Affairs, so that’s another item for Indian-focused Interior officials to deal with. They tend to like that control, and some agree that Treasury did a really bad job at distributing tribal funds in a way that wouldn’t be open to scrutiny — political and otherwise — so Interior officials would like to maintain as much oversight as possible over tribal infrastructure distributions. At the same time, one agency can only do so much, and the amount of money being pumped into Indian Country as a result of the pandemic is unprecedented. In short: more money, more problems.
Questions: Will one tribal infrastructure czar be enough? Will one climate infrastructure czar be enough? How will these people specifically be tasked with helping other agencies beyond Interior? Do other agencies truly understand how important tribal consultation is in the infrastructure funding process?
“Our interagency coordinator position, as well as our current work with the White House Council, I think, is a good start to continuing those interagency conversations,” Wizipan Garriott (Rosebud Sioux), principal deputy assistant secretary for Indian Affairs at Interior, told the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on May 4. He said that the “success of this funding is going to be dependent on rights of way and business leases and us at the Department of the Interior doing our job, so that when projects are funded that the money…can be deployed as quickly as possible.”
Garriott noted that $1.7 billion for tribal water settlements under the law has already been issued by Interior. He did not say when the other $800 million designated for such settlements is going to be released. $150 million has also been designated for orphan wells on tribal lands, he said.
Job description: “Infrastructure and Economic Development Coordinator,” posted April 28 and to close on May 12. Link here, details below:
This position serves as the Infrastructure and Economic Development Coordinator, in the Office of Indian Economic Development (OIED), Office of the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs in Washington, District of Columbia. The incumbent provides leadership, policy support and coordination among Indian Affairs programs, and across Interior bureaus and other Federal agencies for implementation of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) and related economic development activities.
The incumbent supports the development and coordination of the Indian Affairs interagency BIL strategy and provides recommendations, policy development and program analysis for Indian Affairs through the Office of Indian Economic Development (OIED) and serves as the Indian Affairs contact for internal and external interagency partners, including staff at other DOI bureaus; supports the OIED Director to report on Indian Affairs infrastructure and economic development activities at White House Council on Native American Affairs (WHCNAA) meetings, other interagency organizations and communicates WHCNAA recommendations to DOI bureaus and offices.
Major Duties and Responsibilities
Assists with development of policies, standards, procedures, and directives related to program functions and requirements, to include initiating and directing research projects necessary to resolve complex or technical issues.
Coordinates work activities, assignments, and projects with managers internal to the OIED and across the Federal programs implementing infrastructure projects and economic development to ensure their understanding and the effective completion of initiatives and requirements.
As the OIED Interagency Coordinator, the incumbent works closely with the Indian Affairs bureaus and offices to guide and coordinate BIL implementation and related economic development strategies and policy initiatives.
Initiates report's, position papers and memoranda regarding proposed policy and program changes affecting Indian Affairs interagency programs related to BIL implementation, including interdepartmental matters, proposed regulations and policies, legislative proposals, and stakeholder initiatives.
Contributes to the management and coordination of projects for the OIED Director by researching, writing/editing, collaborating on, and performing the initial review of time-sensitive information, correspondence, papers, policy, and briefing materials in response to taskings and action items from internal and external sources.
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