Line-item vetoes ‘send wrong message’: Nez nixes CARES Act funds for chapters, Hataalii group
In the ongoing battle between the president’s office and the Navajo Nation Council over how to spend more than $700 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act monies, accusations of political brinksmanship flew over the 4th of July weekend in an exchange of fiery letters and press releases.
On July 4, the Nez-Lizer administration line-item vetoed $73 million in coronavirus response spending that was approved in June by the Council as amendments in two bills (No. 132 and 116).
Included in the vetoed amount was $55 million in direct relief to the 110 chapters, proposed by Delegate Vince James in an amendment to No. 116, that would have funded the COVID-19 response and mitigation efforts at the local level.
“We had a comprehensive plan proposed, but again, certain members of Council put politics over the needs of our frontline warriors and the Navajo people,” stated President Jonathan Nez. “Instead, we have Council members introducing multiple pieces of legislation that create a chaotic process and attempting to include pet projects and frivolous spending.”
Nez-Lizer also eliminated COVID-19 relief amendments for the Judicial Branch ($10 million), burnout assistance for families without shelter ($7 million), and the Diné Hataalii Association ($1 million) to support the work of traditional practitioners and provide cultural and educational outreach during the pandemic.
“The only thing accomplished by the unthoughtful amendments is a delay in the process of getting funds to the Navajo people,” stated Nez. “The three branch chiefs will now have to go back to the beginning to start over again.”
Delegates say the amendments were needed to balance No. 116 to address immediate local needs with funding that will go to Window Rock, as well as Nez’ claims that it was a three-branch approach.
“The clock is ticking and we have six months to spend 700 million,” said Delegate Mark Freeland. “Our differences needed to be put aside for the benefit of our Navajo people.”
“As council delegates, it pains us to know that we are trying our hardest to meet President Nez in the middle, only to be met with vetoes,” said Speaker Seth Damon. “It’s our job to fight for our local communities.”
Some believe Nez is abusing his veto power, but Nez claims Council is not honoring the separation of powers and is overstepping its authority.
“Important funding has been delayed due to games being played with the legislative process,” Nez stated in a July 4th letter to Council. “(We) have the responsibility to watch over the Navajo people’s money, to ensure accountability and transparency in spending … The Legislative Branch’s responsibility is limited to establishing the proposed laws and policy as recommended by the executive offices and programs.”
‘Our needs are not a priority’
Many chapters were hoping for a bit of immediate direct aid from the Nation’s CARES Act coffers, but as of right now they are set to receive none.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the challenge of trying to maintain services to residents during the government shutdown has fallen on chapter officials and staff faced with limited funding and resources. And the chapter houses are closed, a directive of the executive branch.
Damien Augustine, Counselor Chapter secretary/treasurer, said chapter officials and staff are also frontline workers, which has not been fully recognized by the Navajo Nation government.
“Day in and day out, many of us have been busy collecting essential items for our communities,” said Augustine. “Oftentimes, we are traveling off the reservation and putting our lives at risk. It’s surprising that our president, being a former chapter official himself, would indicate that our needs are not a priority.”
Augustine said the 110 chapters provide direct service to the people and vetoing funds for chapters “just sends the wrong message.”
“We are trying to defeat the pandemic and help our people, something a president should prioritize, and not just choose favorites in what areas get funded,” said Augustine. “The line-item veto authority is grossly being abused.”
Nez said the short timeframe by which the money had to be spent (by Aug. 31) is “not workable for chapters.”
“All chapters are encouraged to work with the executive divisions to present a comprehensive plan to address the specific needs of their communities, the accountability and transparency of their spending plans, and assurance to comply with the guidelines for spending,” said Nez.
The heart of the dispute between the president’s office and Council is over who has authority to determine the spending of the $714 million for and beyond immediate emergency needs.
On July 4, Nez-Lizer did allow $20 million in special duty pay and $10 million for personal protective equipment for frontline workers and $10 million for sanitizing government facilities in No. 132.
Nez-Lizer also approved amendments for $10 million in food, water and basic necessities, $2 million for computer equipment for government offices, $3.5 million for bathroom additions, $3 million for ’638 health facilities, and $2.5 million to improve the Nation’s procurement and financial system in No. 116.
The Lez-Nizer administration proposes to spend the balance of the CARES Act funds as follows: $300 million for water and agriculture projects; $150 million for power and solar infrastructure; $50 million for broadband/telecommunication services; $50 million for scholarships; $60 million for Navajo businesses; $20 million for housing; and any remaining funds going to chapter projects and “direct aid for the Navajo people.”
‘They’re playing their games’
While Division of Community Development Director Pearl Yellowman has claimed in several verbal presentations to Council that a plan is in the works to fund reopening of chapters, no plan or budget has been shared with the Council despite multiple requests for them.
A request for the plan to Yellowman from the Navajo Times also was not responded to, although these days division directors are largely unresponsive to requests for public information, further limiting transparency from the executive branch.
“Why it’s a hidden document, I have no idea,” said Delegate Vince James. “They’re playing their games.”
James said the needs at the chapter level are great.
“Our chapters do need emergency funds to move forward with a lot of differing things,” he said.
As just one example, recently the Jeditto Chapter house had a COVID-19 exposure and had to foot the bill for deep cleaning, he said.
“The command center said the chapter had to pay for it,” said James.
This despite the fact that the Council had allocated over $4 million to the Health Command Operations Center for COVID-19 response, he said.
“To learn the president of the Navajo Nation, Jonathan Nez, has line-item vetoed the 55 million to chapters clearly shows that he doesn’t respect his local people,” said Nahata Dziil Commissioner Darrell Tso. “It’s very disappointing.”
Kee Allen Begay said once again it appears plans are up in the air.
“I’m not really sure what the next step is going to be,” he said. “I’m not sure if the chapters will be considered.”
Begay believes the Division of Community Development needs to be reorganized to more effectively provide services to the Navajo people and chapters.
Even before the pandemic, DCD wasn’t able to keep up with all the work that needed to be done and projects that need to be managed, he said.
“I do truly believe that local chapters have the capability to manage funds and help our Navajo people,” Begay. “This would have been a good time for chapters to be allocated these funds. It seems like Window Rock still wants to be in control of how things are done.”
Freeland said the chapters know best what the priority needs are at the local level.
“I rely heavily on my chapter officials,” he said. “I trust them.”
‘That’s your job as a leader’
Nez-Lizer stated that the $1 million set-aside for the Diné Hataalii Association was removed because it does not comply with the federal guidelines for use of CARES Act funds.
However, delegates said that they already vetted and approved the DHA’s proposal, the intent of which is to “restore the health and wellness of the Diné people” through ceremonial interventions and disseminating educational materials and public information.
“The Council fully justified these expenditures under the federal guidelines as necessary for the mental health and spiritual well-being of many Navajo members,” stated a July 5 response from the speaker’s office.
“The association’s 36-page expenditure plan and its attached budget narrative was more comprehensive than anything submitted to the Council from the Office of the President to date,” noted Damon.
Public Health Advocate Hershel Clark said, as a sovereign Nation, it is the duty of leadership to advocate to Congress and Washington, D.C., on behalf of the Navajo Nation for services that are culturally appropriate, and as to how CARES Act monies are to be spent.
“That’s your job as a leader…” said Clark. “It’s been over 60 days now and all we hear is our leaders divided with no actual outcomes or solutions to providing services to the people. Many of our people are in a serious need of public health assistance, including ‘traditional medicine.’”
The Diné Hataalii Association did not respond to a request for a statement concerning the veto.
Delegate Carl Slater, the sponsor of the DHA proposal amendment, suggested political favoritism was guiding president’s office decisions.
“I don’t know how anyone can place any faith in this administration,” said Slater in response to colleagues to the veto letters. “…You’re deluding yourself if you think your vote and projects aren’t liable for some sort of interference. It doesn’t matter if it’s funded. The second you say something critical or your loyalty is in question, you can guarantee your project will be delayed.”
Slater said requests for peacemaking and other remedies for bridging the divide with the president’s office have been disregarded.
“Tell me how K’é or traditional leadership teachings are consistent with the tone of their letters or their logic?” asked Slater. “We need to give the money to the people.”