New boost in pandemic relief expected
Almost a year after the Coronavirus, Relief, Aid and Economic Security Act was signed into law on March 27, 2020, Navajo Nation leaders may return to the drawing board to decide how to spend an even larger amount of pandemic relief funding.
On Feb 27, the U.S. House of Representatives passed Biden’s $1.9 Trillion COVID-19 “American Rescue Plan,” H.R. 1319, by the vote of 219-212.
The plan prioritizes accelerated vaccination distribution and COVID-19 mitigation, support for ailing businesses, state, tribal and local government funding, help for schools to reopen and more.
If the bill passes the U.S. Senate, all Americans could receive help to recover from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The rescue plan includes $1,400 payments to individuals earning up to $75,000, an extension of unemployment benefits (through Aug. 29) and nutrition assistance, and billions of dollars in aid for small businesses and nonprofits.
“We have no time to waste,” President Joe Biden said on Saturday, urging swift passage of the bill. “If we act now quickly, decisively and boldly, we can finally get ahead of this virus and get our economy moving again.
“The people of this country have suffered far too much for too long,” he said. “We need to relieve that suffering. The American Rescue Plan does just that.”
As of March 3, the U.S. has seen over 28 million cases of COVID-19 and 513,122 deaths – numbers that were unimaginable one year ago – and millions have lost businesses, jobs and wages due to lockdowns, restrictions and closures.
In a boost for Indian Country, the bill includes $20 billion for tribal governments, $6 billion for the Indian Health Service and earmarks $850 million for the Bureau of Indian Education, invests $10 million in Native American language preservation, and allocates $740 million in housing assistance for Native Americans.
The bill also includes annual increases in the minimum wage that would be raised to $15 an hour by 2025, which is one of the many items that is sure to draw debate in the Senate.
Because revisions are expected, most likely by Republicans who believe the package is too costly, much can change.
However, the clock is ticking, especially because unemployment benefits that were temporarily extended in the limited $900 billion relief package signed by former President Donald Trump in December will end on March 14.
The Rescue Plan provides an additional $400 in weekly unemployment benefits through Aug. 29, up from $300 per week. It also extends the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program for those who are self-employed or are contractors.
Democrats, including Biden, have been pushing hard for the direct stimulus of $1,400 to supplement the $600 relief payments approved in the last package.
The legislation states that $1 billion of the $20 billion for tribes will be divided equally among each tribal government and $19 billion will be allocated based on a formula to be determined by the new U.S Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.
The $20 billion represents a significant increase over the $8 billion set aside for tribes in the CARES Act, 60% of which was distributed based on population data and 40% by the number of tribal employees and how hard each tribe was hit by COVID-19.
The Navajo Nation has approximately 327,000 tribal members with a little under half living off-reservation.
Primarily because of its large population, the Navajo Nation received the largest portion of the initial 60% distribution of $4.8 billion to tribes in the CARES Act.
Per the Navajo controller’s office website, as of March 1 the total of $714 million awarded by the CARES Act to the Navajo Nation was budgeted to:
- Direct payment, Hardship Assistance ($296.5 million).
- Public health ($62.6 million).
- Broadband/telecom ($67.5 million).
- Payroll support ($42.1 million).
- Powerline projects ($40.6 million).
- Water projects ($39.3 million).
- Solar projects ($35.1 million).
- Economic Development ($28.6 million).
- Chapters ($28.1 million).
- Gaming ($24.6 million).
- Controller’s office ($17.3 million).
- Personal protective equipment ($7.7 million).
- Facilities maintenance ($6.5 million).
- Care packages, ($6.2 million).
- Financial systems ($2.5 million).
- Bathroom additions ($2.2 million).
- Special duty pay ($2.2 million).
- Information systems ($2 million).
- Judicial ($1.9 million).
- Parks ($196,000).
And $631 million of the $714 million has been spent to date and the balance has to be spent by the extended deadline of Dec. 31, 2021.
Neither President Jonathan Nez nor Speaker Seth Damon responded to a request for information on how they are planning for another round of COVID-19 relief spending.
A political tug-of-war between the president and the Council last summer and fall over expenditure decisions caused major delays and confusion in the allocation of the CARES Act funds that led to a large chunk of the money being directed to Hardship Assistance.
The Hardship payments were greatly appreciated by tribal members.
As of Feb. 18, the controller’s office reported 293,000 Navajos participated in the CARES Act Hardship Assistance Program and 231,281 checks for $1,350 for adults and $500 for minors were issued, accounting for 80% of total applications. Checks are still being distributed.
Biden’s Rescue Plan provides an additional $53.5 billion for COVID-19 vaccine distribution, testing, contact tracing and variant surveillance, almost $130 billion for K-12 schools and $40 billion for colleges and universities, over $5 billion for the food supply chain, agriculture and nutrition assistance, $15 billion for public health, and $19.1 billion for rental assistance.
Additional funds are earmarked for disaster relief, mental health and substance abuse programs, energy assistance, internet connectivity, child care, elders, veterans, disabled persons and nursing homes.
The plan also puts an additional $7.25 billion toward the Paycheck Protection Program and $1.5 billion toward the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program for businesses impacted by the pandemic and allocates $1.25 billion to the Small Business Administration’s program for shuttered entertainment venues.