More state funding coming to Navajo

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, June 20, 2013

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E fforts by Arizona State Senator Jack Jackson and State Rep. Albert Hale have resulted in more state funds coming to the Navajo Reservation and to the state's Indian tribes.

The biggest benefit in the budget approved by the state legislature last week allows, for the first tribe, tribes in the state to receive state funds for improvements to airport facilities on tribal lands.

This program gets its funding from fees and taxes collected on aviation properties in the state, including tribal airports, but up until now the state didn't provide any funding to tribal facilities.

"Representative Hale and I have been trying for three years to get this changed," Jackson said on Monday.

Hale said he sees that this bill will provide an opportunity for the 14 tribally-run airports in the state to assess state funds for the first time.

"Many of the airports in our communities are in need of maintenance and repair work," he said. "This becomes readily apparent during medical emergencies that require air transportation. Some of the airports are just not equipped to handle these situations safely."

Jackson agreed, pointing out that he worked at an airvac company for three years and saw these needs being unaddressed, putting not only the pilot's life in danger but the people they were transporting as well.

Jackson pointed out that when this bill was first introduced into the legislature, the Arizona Aviation Association opposed it, resulting in it failing to make it out of committee.

But the legislature called for a "white paper" to be done on the matter, which showed that the tribes paid into the funds but received no benefit. As a result of this, the AAA changed its position and the proposal sailed through both houses without any opposition.

"This was the second-to-last bill that was considered just before this session adjourned," said Jackson, "so I was sweating there for awhile."

There is no set amount that has been set aside for tribal airports. Jackson said that tribal airports will file their requests, showing their needs, and these requests will be considered along with the requests from airport facilities off the reservation.

But Jackson pointed out that many tribal facilities have many more needs than their counterparts off the reservation so this should work in their favor.

Navajo Technical College

Another major victory in the budget approved by the state is that, for the first time, Navajo Technical College will be getting state support.

"Since opening its two Arizona campuses in 2006, Navajo Technical College has shown retention and graduation rates that far exceed the national average and its students are entering the workforce with high-demand skills like computer science and engineering," said Jackson.

The state legislature agreed to appropriate $850,000 a year to help NTC to improve its Chinle campus. That is in addition to the $1.75 million that goes annually to Diné College.

Jackson pointed out that this is not really state money since the program that is funding the grants gets its money from the transaction privilege tax that is levied throughout the state, including on reservation lands.

So what it means, said Jackson, is that a portion of the money derived from the taxes paid on the reservation will be coming back to Navajoland.

He also stressed that the grant to NTC has no effect on how much money Diné College receives. That annual grant was approved several years ago and was not diminished when NTC got its funding.

He also pointed out that the two schools on the reservation are not competing for students.

"The technical college offers different courses than Diné College does," he said, adding that having the two schools working to educate Navajo youth just shows that there "is a great demand for higher education on the reservation."

Relief to Red Mesa school district

The legislature also provided some relief to Red Mesa Unified School District which had to borrow $2.4 million from the state to keep its doors open after it was ruled that it could not count its students from Utah when it received its Arizona state allocations.

Originally the school was to pay the money back in two years but officials at the school said this would require the district to set aside a major chunk of its revenue to pay back the loan, creating problems with paying teachers and school employees.

Legislators listened, said Jackson, and agreed that it was unfair so new legislation was approved to give the district seven years to repay it back.

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