Council fails to move CARES Act spending
For four days the Naabik’iyat’i Committee discussed bill No. 0144-20, which will adopt the Navajo Nation CARES Fund Expenditure Plans for water projects, powerline projects and broadband-telecommunication projects. After allocating more money than the fund contains, the committee was unable to approve the bill in time for the Navajo Nation Council’s summer session.
The bill, sponsored by Budget and Finance Committee member Amber Kanazbah Crotty and co-sponsored by Speaker Seth Damon and Health, Education, and Human Services Committee member Carl Slater, sought to divvy up the remainder of the $714 million Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funds.
But with amendments added on during the course of the four days, and attempting to add another amendment to give the Navajo Gaming Enterprise $24.6 million, the deficit grew to well over $50 million. “We need to make realistic decision to move this forward,” said Crotty. “We need to reflect on those amendments.”
Overall the legislation listed water projects at $129 million (and an amendment needs to be made to update these numbers and that could mean an extra $28-$33 million); power line extensions at $43 million; broadband at $83 million; solid waste at $30 million; and $879,000 to NTUA for solar projects (that also needs to be amended, according to Damon).
“In this legislation the requirement is specifically geared up towards the deadline of Dec. 30,” said Damon. “But with options coming back, we have to amend it in the future if there is a deadline extension.”
The Coronavirus Relief Fund only allows necessary spending incurred due to the public health emergency of COVID-19 that are not accounted for in the Navajo Nation FY 2020 comprehensive budget, and are incurred from March 1 to Dec. 30, 2020, although the tribe is lobbying heavily for an extension. Although Congress enacted the CARES act on March 27, the Navajo Nation didn’t receive the first $600 million until May 6.
The Nation also received $86 million on June 15, and then on June 18 the Nation received $27 million. The Nation is seeking an extension on spending these monies because of the time lapsed before the tribe was able to get these funds.
Earlier this month U.S. Rep. Tom O’ Halleran, D-Ariz., introduced a bipartisan bill to extend the deadline for tribes to spend CARES Act funding. Rather than having the deadline be Dec. 30, 2020, O’Halleran hopes it will extend to Dec 30, 2022. Congressman Paul Cook, R-Calif., cosponsored the bill. “Bureaucratic red tape and lack of critical attention to the matter at federal agencies forced sovereign tribal nations across Arizona’s first congressional district to wait over a month for the first (portion) of CARES Act funding to arrive,” stated O’Halleran.
“Tribes still face significant hurdles to spending and distributing the funding they were promised.”
Chief Legislative Counsel Dana Bobroff informed the committee that according to the U.S. Treasury guidelines, services and goods have to be received by Dec 30 under the current legislation. But there is an additional 90 days for payment. “Every project in your expenditure plan, it has to meet the criteria,” said Bobroff. “Expenditures have to be related to mitigating or preventing COVID-19. They can’t have been in the tribal comprehensive budget and the services and goods have to be completed by Dec. 30, 2020.”
Other amendments were added such as giving $32.5 million to the Dineh Chamber of Commerce to provide economic support for Navajo-owned business impacted by the virus. In another amendment Health, Education, Human Services Committee Vice Chair Carl Slater proposed a hardship assistance expenditure plan.
This would immediately provide $195 million to the executive branch to provide emergency financial assistance to tribal members to buy personal protective equipment and pay utility bills, rent, mortgages, isolation expenses and other financial burdens created by COVID-19 and the public health orders.
“This looks like its more than the funding that we have available,” said Crotty. “I’m concerned for future amendments to try to fund solar units for community members who don’t have water and electricity.” There was also an amendment for the Health Care Facilities expenditure plan in the amount of $4.2 million to be allocated to Cañoncito Band of Navajo Health Center Inc.
In the end total amount surpassed what was left of the CARES funding, and it did not include the $13 million that the judicial branch was wanting, or the $50 million for scholarships President Jonathan Nez had hoped to add on, among other things. The bill had to be approved by midnight Monday morning in order to make it to summer session, but the voting failed to take place on time.