Nez, Council agree on some projects
President Jonathan Nez and the Navajo Nation Council don’t agree on much but they do agree that CARES Act funding should go to water lines, power lines and broadband/telecommunication projects.
These three areas were not entirely subject to Nez’s line-item veto of resolution No. CJY-67-20, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act expenditure plan, which was developed and approved by Council on July 31.
The Council OK’d more than $130 million in water line projects and Nez left this amount as is; Council also OK’d $44.2 million in power line projects and this amount was left as is also; but the $68 million for broadband projects was reduced to $53.2 million.
“I appreciate the Council for approving the water line projects, the electrical extension projects, the broadband, the telecommunication — those were the bigger packages so we could help our Navajo citizens out,” said Nez.
In March, the Navajo Nation reported its first case of the novel coronavirus, shortly after declaring a public health emergency. A few weeks later Congress passed the CARES Act, but as people and entities began receiving their direct deposits or checks immediately, tribes had to wait a few extra weeks. On May 6, the Navajo Nation finally received $600 million from the CARES Act.
On June 15 another $86.3 million went into the tribal coffers; and on June 18 the Nation received $27.2 million, totaling $714 million — one of the largest lump sums ever given by the U.S. government to a federally recognized tribe. This money came with stipulations and guidelines on how to spend it as well as a deadline of Dec. 30 to have it all spent. This date, which the tribe is lobbying Congress to extend, will be problematic, considering the intricate process the tribe has in place for awarding contracts.
In July, two resolutions allocated over $60 million for special duty pay, Personal Protective Equipment for frontline workers, facility disinfecting, etc. With these dollars and the $475 million approved, Nez stated in his memo to the speaker that the remaining $176.4 million can be used in a second phase appropriation for services to the Navajo people. “Our goal is to have all the projects delivering direct services completed by the end of December,” Nez said.
During a previous town hall, Nez told viewers that they had made suggestions to Council such as $50 million in college relief for students, propane for elders and direct aid but Council didn’t consider these. He brought up Council’s $1,000 that was listed for hardship pay and didn’t understand why that small amount was listed.
But during an Aug. 19 town hall, Nez said Resource and Development Committee member Kee Allen Begay will submit a bill for the remaining $176.4 million. This will include items that weren’t considered such as $35 million in direct aid for college students, housing assistance, elder assistance, propane and natural gas relief, solid waste, and the $1,000 hardship assistance Council listed.
Nez said they want to increase that to $30.5 million. “I ask all of you to contact your Council delegate to get this direct aid approved,” said Nez. “So the Navajo people can get some funds to help them through these trying times. If it gets approved we will have successfully allocated the $714 million.”
Vetoed items included: solar projects, such as $34 million appropriated to Native Renewables; $15 million for non-tribal owned Eligible Telecommunication Carriers; $33 million for housing projects; $20 million for additional administration and compliance of CARES Act funds; $23 million for solid waste projects across the Navajo nation; $48 million for payroll expenditures.
When it comes to the main three that have been expended dollars, the sponsor of the resolution (when it was No. 0144-20), Budget and Finance Committee member Amber Crotty, gave appreciation to Nez for funding the water plan fully and said now it’s up to delegates to ensure funds are spent efficiently.
“We know that the need for a massive investment in water infrastructure on the Navajo Nation is required,” stated Crotty. “It is now the responsibility of Council, through its legislative oversight, to ensure that these funds move quickly to the projects and communities that will have the most immediate outcomes in preventing the spread of the coronavirus and its impacts.”
As for the power line spending plan, Council stated the $44 million will go toward service line extensions/agreements, rights-of-way, service drop lines, house wiring, meter looping, trunk lines, transmission upgrades and more.
The project funds, including those authorized for non-governmental entities, will be administered through the Navajo Nation Division of Community Development and in accordance with the federal CARES Act and U.S. Treasury guidelines.
As for telecommunications, Nez line-item vetoed $15 million, which Speaker Seth Damon said would work toward reducing the distance a person has to travel to get a Wi-Fi connection.
“We aim to reduce the distance the average Navajo person travels in order to connect to the nearest Wi-Fi network or even to catch a reliable cell-signal,” stated Damon. “These are important to ensuring the Navajo people have access to remote telehealth services, distance-learning opportunities, remote working, and so many more critical components of maintaining safety during this pandemic.”