Bill caps ARPA hardship payments at $186M
Many Diné are waiting and hoping for another round of hardship assistance from the American Rescue Plan Act funding of $1.86 billion received by the Nation.
But that possibility was significantly limited by a provision in the bill (CJY-41-21), which was signed into law by President Jonathan Nez on Aug. 3.
Only one delegate, Shiprock’s Eugenia Charles-Newton, voted “nay” on the bill, which sets up a framework to appropriate and spend ARPA monies through the newly created Navajo Nation Fiscal Recovery Fund.
The bill includes a number of directives, one of which puts a cap on potential hardship assistance for individuals.
The bill’s spending plan for the fund states that financial assistance to enrolled Navajo Nation members will be limited to 10% of the total funds received by the Nation.
Ten percent of the total ARPA funds amounts to about $186 million, and if the approximately 400,000 enrolled Navajos applied, payments would be $465 per person.
The bill states that after the second quarter of 2024, unallocated or unspent funds can be reallocated for financial assistance to enrolled members through resolution of the Navajo Nation Council and approval by the president.
But that would mean that, presuming there is any remaining unspent money at that time, people would have to wait until end of 2024 to receive any additional hardship payment.
This would defeat one of the purposes of ARPA, to help people recover from the COVID-19 pandemic now.
Focus on infrastructure
ARPA funds are intended to respond to the COVID-19 public health emergency and its negative economic impacts, including assistance to households, small businesses, nonprofits, and aid to impacted industries such as tourism, travel and hospitality.
It also offers premium pay to essential workers, makes necessary investments in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure, and replaces lost revenue for local governments to strengthen services to the public.
Fiscal Recovery Fund costs must be obligated or incurred by Dec. 31, 2024, and projects must be completed by Dec. 31, 2026.
A joint news release from the president’s office and speaker’s Office on Tuesday made no mention of the cap on payments to individuals included in the bill, instead emphasizing the importance of infrastructure projects.
“After decades of unfinished infrastructure, struggling economy, and inadequate education systems, the Navajo Nation is on the doorstep of changing our future for our grandchildren,” said Nez.
Meanwhile, the bill allocates 10% of ARPA funds, or about $186 million, to the president’s and speaker’s offices for administration of ARPA projects and monies.
“Together, through the resiliency of our frontline warriors and our Navajo people, we built on opportunities and resources to help each other,” said Nez.
A request to Speaker Seth Damon and the sponsors of the legislation as to how the 10% percent cap on payments to individuals was decided, whether it was agreed upon by the Council before the legislation was heard, and whether the three branch chiefs supported it, was not responded to.
Back in early June, delegates Eugenia Charles-Newton and Vince James submitted a request for a bill proposing to use American Rescue Plan Act funds to give every enrolled Diné adult $2,000 and every child $1,000 in hardship assistance.
Acting Controller Elizabeth Begay has estimated that would cost about $600 million, or about one-third of Navajo ARPA funds.
A popular program
James said that the ARPA spending guidelines are what led him and Charles-Newton to initiate the bill in addition to the fact that the CARES Act Hardship Assistance program was wildly popular among the people.
At the time James said the new hardship assistance bill was being crafted by the legislative counsel’s office and was one of the first proposals in the pipeline to spend a portion of the $1.86 billion.
Now that the process for expending ARPA funds is in place, that bill can move forward. However, the new cap on hardship payments would prohibit the larger payment amounts unless the provision is rescinded.
“The way it was explained to me is that the ten percent cap means that one hundred eighty million is basically what we would get,” said Charles-Newton.
Charles-Newton said she and James will be “taking the issue to the people” with a live Facebook video this week to explain the provision and offer some options for how to move forward.
“We’re going to leave it to the people and we’re going to present it to them,” she said.
Charles-Newton said people will also need to contact their Council delegates if they want to advocate for larger hardship payments.
Reached by phone, Carl Slater, primary sponsor of the bill, proposed that any additional hardship payments could be prioritized based on need or financial impacts suffered due to COVID-19, which could reduce the number of applicants if a new hardship assistance legislation were to be passed.
“They could create a priority group,” he said. “The Hardship Assistance was supposed to be for those who experienced hardship.”
Yet, over the past year, Charles-Newton has repeatedly said that every member of the Navajo Nation has suffered the impacts of COVID-19 in one way or another and all are deserving of hardship assistance.
This is why every eligible enrolled member of the Navajo Nation was able to apply for the Navajo CARES Act Hardship Assistance payments.