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Billion dollar ARPA bill ‘ramrodded’ through Council after ‘cease debate’

WINDOW ROCK

After almost a year of planning, discussion and political wrangling, the Navajo Nation Council finally appropriated the remaining $1.1 billion of American Rescue Plan Act funds first thing Thursday morning.

During day two of the three-day special session – the fourth special session called to wrestle with the bill – a quick vote was called on the proposal (No. 86-22).

After fast-tracking a “cease debate” motion by Delegate Edison Wauneka, supported by Speaker Seth Damon, the vote was taken even though some delegates had said they wanted to continue the discussion and had more amendments ready.

The bill passed, 20-2 with delegates Eugenia Charles-Newton and Amber Kanazbah Crotty voting against it.

“In my opinion, the legislation was ramrodded through the process,” said Charles-Newton. “I did try to challenge this decision with a point of privilege.”

The ARPA bill, prepared by the president’s office and sponsored by Delegate Mark Freeland, with four amendments, includes the following priorities (per the speaker’s office):

  • $211.2 million for chapter projects (to be determined) divided equally by 24 delegate regions.
  • $96.4 million for home electricity connections.
  • $225 million for water and wastewater projects.
  • $145.5 million for housing construction, including veteran and Bennett Freeze housing.
  • $150 million for bathroom additions.
  • $120 million for new Hardship Assistance applications.
  • $109.8 million for internet broadband connections.
  • $40 million for rural addressing and cyber security upgrades.
  • $19.2 million for transitional housing and detox centers.

‘Monumental moment’

“This is a monumental moment for the Navajo people,” said President Jonathan Nez, who is running for re-election in this years’ Navajo Nation election.

“Never in the history of our government have we invested this amount of funding to provide running water, electricity to homes, broadband connectivity, housing for families and veterans, and many more critical services for our people,” he said.

Similarly, in a press release from the speaker’s office that did not mention the “cease debate” or Charles-Newton’s challenge, Damon said the Navajo Nation is now “ready to rebuild, construct, and create thousands of new jobs.”

In 2020, the Navajo Nation received approximately $2.1 billion in ARPA funds from the Biden administration to respond to the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With an estimated need of more than $20 billion in infrastructure projects, even the ARPA funds can only go so far.

“We did our best to bring the executive and legislative branches together to hear concerns and find a compromise,” said Delegate Wilson Stewart.

But many were shocked at the speed of the vote, which sailed through Council after months of careful consideration for every delegate’s wishes.

Charles-Newton said she was prepared to propose several amendments including $15.8 million for the judicial branch to help deal with a backlog of cases, additional special duty/premium pay for front-line workers, and help for farmers, which she said Council knew about.

Delegate Carl Slater, who sponsored the first amendment to the bill for a compromise to provide an increased amount of unencumbered funds ($8.8 million) for each of the 24 legislative districts, missed the special session due to an illness.

He told the Navajo Times on Friday he believes all delegates should have had the chance to offer amendments no matter how long it took.

“I wish they hadn’t done that,” he said, referring to the Council’s vote for the cease debate.

‘People’s money’

However, Freeland said projects in the approved bill will immediately start working on the Navajo people’s disparities in living conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This historic action by my colleagues of the Navajo Nation Council addresses the urgent needs of the communities we represent,” said Freeland.

He said the ARPA funds are the “Navajo people’s money” and they deserve immediate support.

Delegate Daniel Tso said, “We made many attempts to get as much ARPA funds to bring the most quality-of-life enhancements of water and electric connections to our community members.

“This compromise action begins the boots on the groundwork construction for 110 chapters,” he said.

According to documents provided to Council by the president’s office, the breakdown of amounts for infrastructure project by delegate region are:

  • Nathanial Brown, $26 million.
  • Charlaine Tso, $19.7 million.
  • Eugenia Charles-Newton, $15.7 million.
  • Amber Kanazbah Crotty, $22.4 million.
  • Seth Damon, $19.1 million.
  • Daniel Tso, $24.1 million.
  • Herman Daniels, $22.2 million.
  • Edmund Yazzie, $17.1 million.
  • Elmer Begay, $23.2 million.
  • Eugene Tso, $37.1 million.
  • Mark Freeland, $42.6 million.
  • Pernell Halona, $29.8 million
  • Jamie Henio, $23.4 million.
  • Vince James, $25.6 million.
  • Kee Allen Begay, $15.9 million.
  • Rickie Nez, $14.4 million.
  • Otto Tso, $14.8 million.
  • Paul Begay, $21.3 million.
  • Carl Slater, $22 million.
  • Raymond Smith, $18.3 million.
  • Wilson Steward, $13 million.
  • Thomas Walker, $29 million.
  • Edison Wauneka, $11.8 million.
  • Jimmy Yellowhair, $21.9 million.

These amounts are for projects that were reviewed and approved by the Department of Justice.

‘Long, hard fight’

Delegate Kee Allen Begay said allocating the ARPA funds was a “long, hard fight” as they advocating for communities in the more rural parts of the Nation.

“Much work needs to be done and I’m here making sure projects are completed,” said Begay. “To my community, I’ll continue to advocate for additional funds!”

Charles-Newton said she is “flabbergasted” that the Council did not provide money to the third branch of government.

“No money – zilch, nada, nothing – was given to our third branch — the judicial branch,” she told Navajo Times. “What I worry about is, how long will people have to wait to get justice?”

“How long will people have to wait to get their probated cases addressed?” asked Charles-Newton. “How many lawbreakers will be let loose because the courts don’t have the manpower or money to address criminal cases?”

Delegate Vince James said prioritizing the $1 billion was difficult because there was no “equalization” of funds even though the pandemic impacted every part of the Navajo Nation.

“I really do hope that every Navajo family will be served by the promising projects that were listed in the legislation that we voted on,” he said.

The president’s office stated that it worked closely with “technical experts” to write the bill based on meetings with many communities along with supporting resolutions from chapters and agency councils.

“This is the most comprehensive infrastructure package ever developed by the Navajo Nation,” said Paulson Chaco, chief of staff for the president’s office. “Our team kept fighting for the Navajo people because we know what they experience every day because of COVID-19.”

Once the speaker certifies the resolution, the presidet’s office will have 10 days to sign or veto the bill. Ne’s OK is expected since he has been pushing for its passage.

Information: www.navajonationarpa.org

For more on this story, look in next week’s Navajo Times.


About The Author

Rima Krisst

Reporter and photojournalist Rima Krisst has been with the Navajo Times since July of 2018, and covers our Arts and Culture and Government Affairs beats. Prior to joining the editorial team at the Times, Krisst worked in various capacities in the areas of communications, public relations, marketing and Indian Affairs policy on behalf of the Tribes, Nations and Pueblos of New Mexico. Among her posts, she served as Director of PR and Communications for the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department under Governor Bill Richardson, Healthcare Outreach and Education Manager for the Eight Northern Pueblos, Tribal Tourism Liaison for the City of Santa Fe, and Marketing Projects Coordinator for Santa Fe Indian Market. As a writer and photographer, she has also worked independently as a contractor on many special projects, and her work has been published in magazines. Krisst earned her B.S. in Business Administration/Finance from the University of Connecticut.

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