U.S. Senate panel OKs measure to pay Spokane Tribe for Grand Coulee Dam

By:  William L. Spence
Source: The Lewiston Tribune

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee approved legislation Wednesday that would compensate the Spokane Tribe of Indians for reservation lands that were lost following construction of Grand Coulee Dam.

The bill was introduced by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and co-sponsored by her colleague, Washington Sen. Patty Murray.

"This legislation has passed the House and the Senate, just never at the same time," Cantwell said during a brief statement at Wednesday's committee meeting.

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee has approved the legislation at least four times, including in 2014, when Cantwell served as its chairwoman. Similar bills passed the Senate in 2004 and in the House in 2005 (where Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., was the sponsor), but stalled in the other body.

The issue dates back to the 1940s, when 11 towns and about 70,000 acres of tribal lands located along the Columbia and Spokane rivers were inundated after Grand Coulee Dam was completed.

Much of the land belonged to the Confederated Colville Tribes. It sued the government in 1951, but it wasn't until 1994 that Congress approved a $53 million settlement. The settlement also includes annual payments of about $15.25 million, based on early power sales from the dam.

Cantwell's bill calls for an initial $53 million payment to the Spokane Tribe. It requires the tribal business council to prepare a plan outlining how the money would be used. Approved uses include economic and infrastructure development, as well as health, recreation, social welfare and educational services.

The tribe would also receive an annual payment equal to 25 percent of what the Colville Tribes receive, reflecting the smaller amount of land it lost; beginning in 2027 that would bump up to 32 percent.

The bill now moves on to the full Senate.

In other action, the committee also addressed legislation sponsored by its current chairman, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., that would create a new Indian Education Agency within the Department of Interior.

All education-related functions in the Bureau of Indian Affairs would be shifted to the new agency. The intent, Barrasso said, is to create greater transparency and accountability and better meet the needs of Indian students nationwide.

Committee Democrats, however, objected to an amendment, also sponsored by Barrasso, that would cap Indian education funding at $983 million per year, including $130 million for school construction, maintenance and repairs.

"That's less than what we approved this year," said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. "I'm concerned this bill doesn't provide enough funding for Indian education."

"The last thing we should be doing is setting a cap on education," said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.

The committee approved the amendment, as well as the main bill.