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Tribes seek say in federal taxes, express frustration at lack of focus

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WASHINGTON – When the director of the IRS’s Office of Indian Tribal Governments was asked this week about getting rid of a decades-old rule that excluded tribal council members from Social Security, she said she had heard that request before.

However, Christie Jacobs said she had also heard from tribes who wanted to stay out of the federal program and provide for their own leaders’ retirements.

“We’re confronted with hearing both things,” Jacobs said. “It makes it hard to take something that’s been in place for so long and just have it go away.”

Jacobs was part of a panel on taxes at the National Congress of American Indians winter summit in Washington that included federal bureaucrats, congressional staffers and tribal leaders – many of whom said that tribal input on tax reform isn’t working.

Speakers pointed to disagreements among tribes and tribal leaders not only on what tax issues are important but also what stance to take on those issues.

“We’re not getting anywhere,” Henry Cagey of the Lummi Indian Business Council, said during Monday’s session.

A staffer for Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he has seen the lack of consensus among tribal leaders in the area of tax extenders, where he says the wishes of some tribes stunt any progress toward reform and just continue renewal of the existing tax codes.

“Not everybody is going to agree on all of these issues,” said Dante Desiderio, executive director of the Native American Finance Officers Association, adding that there is a “laundry list” of tax issues tribes have put before Congress.

“I think we’re negotiating against ourselves even before this negotiation process starts,” Desderio said. “I don’t know if there’s real resistance, we haven’t heard from Congress yet.”

But San Carlos Apache Chairman Terry Rambler said that issues of tax reform bring Natives together rather than break them up.

Despite the drawing of arbitrary reservation boundaries that “isolated us politically, economically, and socially,” Rambler said tribes are “in the same boat as far as that concern.”

“The issues that we have as San Carlos Apache are similar to those of tribes in other states,” he said. “That’s what brings us together as brothers and sisters, because we’ve gone through this for 200 years.”

The tax session was supposed to focus on changes that might be made to tax policy to further tribal economies. Issues ranged from taxes on welfare benefits to adoption tax credits, excise taxes to low-income housing credits – but few got more than a mention.

“Once that Indian Country is in agreement about what it is that we want at the moment,” the chances of succeeding greatly increase, said Rob Porter, an attorney with Dentons law firm, who represents the Lummi.

“But when we’ve got all these different issues and half the horse is pulling one way and half pulling in the other … that’s what we need more time to do, is figure out what we can all prioritize,” Porter said. “And then let’s all work on it and get it and then move on to the next.”