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updated 5/16/2006 4:06:25 PM ET 2006-05-16T20:06:25

Economic development in Indian country is not a priority for the Bush administration, according to Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing on economic development on May 10. After the hearing Johnson, a member of the committee, spoke with reporters by teleconference.

On April 21 Johnson held a listening hearing in South Dakota with tribal leaders and American Indian business leaders. At that hearing Johnson said there is no political will to fix the problems Indian country faces with infrastructure, financing and other issues that hold back economic development.

At the news conference, Indian Country Today asked the senator what it would take to create that political will.

Said Johnson: ''I wish there was an easy answer for that. I have to say I'm profoundly disappointed in the administration's unwillingness to deal in an effective way with the resources that are needed to create a viable economy in Indian country; we need a much stronger private sector. And the tools that are so essential — including the Small Business Administration, the Community Development Block Grant programs and Community Development Financial Institutions - are being drained of money by the Bush administration's recommendations; these are all modest programs - this is no 'Marshall plan.'

''These are modest programs that are critical to developing entrepreneurial skills, teaching people about business plans and creating small amounts of capitalization for Indian entrepreneurs to make progress; we also need [the] BIA to be a help instead of a hindrance in terms of leasing policies in Indian country, we also need better funding in education from early Head Start all the way throughout tribal colleges, and at each and every turn the Bush administration has worked against us,'' he said.

Rising tide lifts all boats
''I hope that they will come around; they haven't as yet in terms of budget priorities, As I say, we attempted a $1 billion increase in funding that would have gone a long ways toward improving economic opportunities in Indian country, which in turn, then, is beneficial to non-Indians as well. There are few things that would be of greater help to non-Indian families than a much higher level of prosperity on reservations — that rise in tide does lift all the boats, that's more money for everybody and fewer social and economic problems.

''I'm just terribly frustrated that we don't see a more ambitious effort out of the White House in support of developing a strong private sector economy in Indian country. I'm going to continue to speak out on this. We are going to continue to hold hearings.

''I'm not going to give up on this White House, but I do have to share with you that they have plenty of money for every other imaginable purpose other than living up to their treaty and trust responsibilities and ending this cycle of poverty and dependency we have too much of in Indian country. If they can spend [a] billion dollars a week, they ought to be able to spend $1 billion a year in Indian country, to help end poverty and help our people. If they can spend $21 billion rebuilding Iraq as foreign aid, why can't they find $1 billion to rebuild Indian country and help our schools and hospitals and housing, and to create jobs? To me this is an outrageous set of upside down priorities.''

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