Feds Set Aside COVID-19 Aid for Indian Country. But Does it Meet Tribes’ Needs?

“We were looking for $20 billion, and we’re still looking for $20 billion,” said NCAI Chairman Kevin J. Allis. 

It’s been nearly two weeks since President Trump signed into law the CARES Act, a $2.2 trillion package to deal with the effects of the novel coronavirus COVID-19. Tribes are now getting a sense of how the legislation can help them, and how it needs to be improved. The Act sets aside $10 billion specifically for Tribes, and that figure could double with the next round of legislation. 

READ MORE: CARES Act to Deliver $10B to Indian Country, Previous Funds Yet to Reach Tribes

Breakdown of How the $2 Trillion Stimulus Bill Would Impact Indian Country

In a webinar hosted yesterday by the American Bar Association (ABA), “Issues Affecting Native American Communities During the COVID-19 Crisis,” numerous leaders and experts discussed Indian Country’s needs.

 

Considering previous aid or stimulus packages haven’t explicitly addressed concerns raised in Indian Country, money put aside for Natives was an achievement — yet it falls short. 

“We were looking for $20 billion, and we’re still looking for $20 billion,” said Kevin J. Allis, Chairman of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). “We didn’t get everything we asked for [but] at one point we weren’t even in the bill.”

One major sticking point with CARES, raised in the webinar, is the Act’s focus on expenses rather than loss of revenue. Bryan Newland, Bay Mills Indian Community Chairman, described a call with the Treasury Department in which he felt treated “almost as though Tribes were some business that needed to be strictly regulated. … Many of us tried to make the point that if we can’t use that relief fund to account for the missing revenues, we won’t have anybody working in our government to incur extra expenses for a response.”

Tribes may be facing a challenge because they don’t have the tax base that non-Tribal state and local governments have. Downtime for Tribal businesses diminishes the whole Tribe’s ability to function, whether expenses are covered or not.

Measures taken to help small businesses are enticing for many Native entrepreneurs, but throughout Indian Country there is a frustration that casinos, which generate so much revenue for Tribal economies, are by law excluded from the aid. “On the ground in Indian Country, SBA is not meeting our needs,” said Newland.

READ MORE: Tribal Gaming Excluded From SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program 

On the same day that the panel was discussing that issue, President Trump was asked about small-business aid for casinos — specifically, smaller casinos in Nevada. “I can look at that,” Trump said at the daily press briefing. “I will take a look at that strongly. Are you talking only the smaller casinos? Yeah, I’ll take a look at that. I don’t mind that. … Nobody’s told me about it, but I’ll look at it. It’s a great state, they do a great job.”

As with so much off-the-cuff talk during the last couple of months, it’s a promising statement and it isn’t. When will Trump and lawmakers look at the issue? 

If the initiative spearheaded by Representatives Sharice Davids (Kansas-03), a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, and Ruben Gallego (Arizona-07) gains traction, hopefully soon. They’re leading an effort to make CARES Act, and specifically Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), funding available to Tribal gaming businesses and Tribal financial enterprises. They sent a letter yesterday to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza, signed by 38 bipartisan members of Congress, calling for Tribal small businesses to have access to these critical relief programs.

READ MORE: Reps. Lead Push for Tribal Small Businesses to Access Relief During Coronavirus 

Now that the dust has settled from the initial joy over the passage of CARES and the inclusion of aid to Indian Country, the hard work of getting what is promised and negotiating for what’s still needed takes place. 

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., told his fellow ABA panel members that now is the time for “[making] sure we’re holding the administration’s feet to the fire.”

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