Nest egg of the Navajo people

By Duane A. Beyal
WINDOW ROCK, September 6, 2012

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he organizers of the meeting could have posted a sign at the entrance that stated, "Please leave your guns at the door."

On Aug. 22 at the Nation Building Summit at Diné College in Tsaile, Ariz., current and former Navajo Nation leaders sat on chairs under a tent on a cool, rainy day.

A quick glance around the audience revealed former president Milton Bluehouse Sr., former interim chairman Leonard Haskie and former chairman and president Peterson Zah. Former chairman Peter MacDonald Sr. was on the agenda for the Thursday night banquet.

The rest of the 100 or so people included current and former tribal officials, a scattering of Council delegates and a sprinkle of current and former chapter, county and state officials.

In other words, the crowd was comprised of grand poobahs and their staffs, politicians of every stripe, some has-beens, a few wannabes and a couple of almost-weres.

Billed as an opportunity to hear from the people, most of those in attendance were support staff and consultants.

The MC was Katherine Benally, chair of the Resources and Development Committee.

What would bring such a diverse group together? Money, of course.

The bottom line, as expressed on Aug. 22 by President Ben Shelly in a sometimes awkward PowerPoint presentation ("reburst" for "robust"), is that money is getting scarce. Shelly said the tribe faces a 10 percent across-the-board cut in federal funds next year.

In a press release from the speaker's office, Benally said the purpose of the summit was to hear directly from the people about infrastructure needs in their communities. A second part of the discussion was whether a percentage of the Permanent Fund should be withdrawn to pay for infrastructure projects.

Lorenzo Bates, chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee, in his presentation on Aug. 22, said options include a $200 million or a $500 million drawdown in 2013 or to use the funds as collateral for a bond issue.

He warned of the unpredictable economy, however, such as the downturn that occurred in 2008.

Benally said her committee will follow the wishes of the people whether to hold a referendum or to leave the fund alone.

Also on Aug. 22, Shelly said his position is to use the Permanent Fund for a "big investment."

The reason for Shelly's and Benally's platitudes? A total of $1.2 billion, the level to which the fund has grown since it was established with $20 million in 1985, and its earnings, called the fund income.

The 1985 law stated that 12 percent of all revenue each year must be deposited into the fund and cannot be spent for 20 years.

The question today is whether and how to proceed.

The law imposes important restrictions set up to protect the fund. The fund's principal - $1.2 billion – cannot be touched unless two-thirds of the Council votes for a referendum and two-thirds of the voters approve the question.

Also, 95 percent of the fund income can be spent but only if the Council approves a five-year plan. Bates said two proposed plans have failed. The remaining five percent would be deposited back into the fund.

The concept of the Permanent Fund is an expression of Diné values. We all know the benefits of the proper management of sheep, cattle, horses, corn and squash. If you care for them today, your family will prosper in the future.

Facing the prospect of dwindling funds, our leadership sees a candy jar as they head into the second half of their elected terms. Where else can they find new money?

In 2002, the Council established the Permanent Fund Work Group to create a five-year plan to spend the fund income. In October 2003, the work group submitted a final report to the Council.

Understanding the major questions and issues confronting them, the work group presented recommendations instead of a five-year plan. One called for a description of what we want to achieve for generations to come. Another was not to use the Permanent Fund to replace lost revenue.

The call was to look to the future, not to maintain the status quo.

The work group included representatives from each agency along with reps chosen by the president and speaker. The work group chose Zah to be chairperson.

At the Nation Building Summit, Zah spoke on the morning of Aug. 23. His message was that other options should be explored before dipping into the fund.

The government is too big, costly and wasteful, he said, and should be evaluated.

Many people, including current elected leaders, owe the tribe money and these should be paid. Other sources of revenue ought to be explored.

Most of all, a pile of money should not be thrown at the Council, which has members still under the cloud of charges of misusing discretionary funds.

This should not be done until they have cleared their names, Zah said, as the audience stood and cheered.

The press release from the speaker's office about the summit simply said Zah urged caution.

Indeed, a quick look at the Navajo Nation government shows areas in dire need of fixing. For example, each year the tribe sends millions in federal funds back to Washington either because the money was not used or was used improperly.

(As of press time Wednesday, the controller's office had not responded to a message asking how much has been sent back each year.)

Another example is infrastructure projects funded by the states, often called capital improvement projects. Often state funds sit unused for years as the inefficient tribal system plods along. Many other areas, such as off-reservation travel, can be examined to save money.

A popular rhetorical question politicians like to ask is: are you better off than four years ago? A majority of Diné would say no. In fact, generations may say nothing has changed. One of my uncles said he doesn't vote because "it doesn't affect my life."

If this current effort to use the money we set aside for future generations only for vote-generating projects today succeeds, it is our children who will be shortchanged.

Yes, the law allows for the use of the Permanent Fund provided the restrictions are met. But prudent management calls for a thorough examination of all options before opening the cookie jar.

Otherwise, the people's precious nest egg will disappear into the money shredder the tribal government has become.

Beyal, the former editor of the Navajo Times, has served as press officer for Chairman Peterson Zah, the interim chairman's office and the speaker's office, and as an assistant to President Zah.

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