Funding requests stricken from Council agenda
The 24th Navajo Nation Council’s Winter Session agenda was already short but it became miniscule after Council reluctantly agreed to delete a few items regarding funding requests.
The impending budget shortfall, due to NGS and Kayenta Mine shutting down, has become increasingly a concern for the Jonathan Nez-Myron Lizer Administration over the past few months and just before the start of the winter session Monday, marking one year since this Council has been in office, Nez and Lizer sent out a letter requesting they hold off on considering any legislations that request funds until the three branch chiefs address the expected revenue shortfalls.
“With the closure of the Navajo Generating Station and Kayenta Mine, our Nation’s annual revenue has declined by approximately $30 to $50 million … Before our administration considers funding new projects, we need to first work together to address the budget shortfall for the coming years,” stated the letter to Council. “We respectfully request the honorable 24th Navajo Nation Council to hold off on entertaining any legislations requesting funding from the Sihasin, UUFB (Undesignated, Unreserved Fund Balance), or other revenue sources.”
On the agenda were a $50 million request from the Sihasin Fund for the Navajo Scholarship Endowment Expenditure Plan; Navajo Tribal Utility Authority’s request for $1 million from the Sihasin; $1.4 million from Sihasin for Ganado Senior Citizen/Veterans Center; and a $1.8 million chapter emergency funds request from the UUFB. This last legislation, sponsored by Ray Smith, however, stayed on the agenda.
A 2018 audit by the firm KPMG puts the Sihasin Fund, which was started in 2014 with a $554 million settlement from the U.S. Government, at $638 million. The Permanent Trust Fund, started in the 1980s as sort of insurance for a time in which the Nation’s natural resources might run out, had $2.4 billion, according to the audit.
Since the eventuality the PTF was destined for is coming to pass with the closure of the Kayenta Mine and proposed closure of the San Juan Generating Station, the fund has been a topic of discussion. A proposal has been floated to use the interest income earned from the fund — not its principal — to help fund the Navajo Nation budget for the next five years to ensure continued direct services, as well as preventing layoffs within the tribe. Others believe the tribe hasn’t hit rock-bottom yet and the fund should be preserved for yet a rainier day.
Before they could officially begin the session, delegates had to adopt the agenda. After nearly two hours of debate on whether they’d delete their funding requests, delegates adopted the agenda.
Budget and Finance Committee Chair Jamie Henio made the motion to amend the agenda to delete these items, but it was met with opposition from Health, Education and Human Services Chair Daniel Tso, who asked that the $50 million scholarship legislation stay on the agenda.
“We don’t know what the balance of the Sihasin money is,” said Henio. “I always stated: The 24th Navajo Nation Council will go down in history as the council that depleted the Sihasin Fund. That’s what I’m trying to avoid here.”
Since Tso asked to keep the $50 million Sihasin request, Delegate Vince James, who sponsored the $1.4 million SIhasin request for his Ganado community, said if not all Sihasin requests legislations are taken off the agenda, then he wanted his legislation to stay on the agenda as well.
“I still don’t believe we should be pressing our Sihasin legislations,” said James. “If we are going to be nice and fall for the bully-ness, then fine.”
James continued to question how much of a guarantee there is that Nez won’t veto funding request legislations later on, even after Council agreed to delete the requests off the agenda. He also asked legislative counsel whether or not Sihasin Fund legislations need Nez’s approval.
“For a thorough discussion of my answer, I would like to go into executive session,” said Chief Legislative Counsel Dana Bobroff. “I will tell you this: The Sihasin statute can be interpreted in many ways, but all legislations appropriating funds, the Council has to send the bill across for the President’s signature or veto. They have done that since the first Sihasin legislation was passed in the 23rd Council.”
In the end all of the funding requests legislations, except for Smith’s, were deleted off the agenda with a vote of 14-9.