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Tribes begin to receive partial coronavirus stimulus funding after court battle

Tribes begin to receive partial coronavirus stimulus funding after court battle
© Aaron Schwartz

The Treasury Department announced Tuesday that it would begin distributing some of the coronavirus stimulus intended for Native American tribes, irking lawmakers who say the administration took far too long to dole out partial funding. 

The CARES Act passed on March 25 set aside $8 billion for tribal governments to cover the costs of combating the coronavirus. But getting that funding in tribal coffers has been delayed in a court battle over which entities should qualify.

“We are pleased to begin making $4.8 billion in critical funds available to tribal governments in all states,” Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven MnuchinPence delivers coronavirus task force report to Biden Treasury imposes additional sanctions on Cuba over allegations of 'serious human rights abuse' Treasury Department sanctions inner circle of Russian agent Derkach for election interference MORE said in a statement Tuesday.

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That figure, 60 percent of total funding, will be distributed based on tribes’ total populations starting Tuesday. The rest, to be handed out “at a later date,” will take into account the number of people employed by the tribe.

Congress gave Treasury 30 days to distribute the stimulus funds — a deadline that was missed.

“Native communities needed these resources for their health and economic recovery plans weeks ago. The full fund should have been distributed by now,” Sen. Tom UdallTom UdallSenate approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee Senate swears-in six new lawmakers as 117th Congress convenes We can achieve our democratic ideals now by passing the For the People Act MORE (D-N.M.), vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said in a statement.

“All $8 billion of the Tribal relief fund— and not a dollar less — needs to get out the door, on the ground, and into the right hands immediately," he added. "And the administration must stop deploying COVID-19 resources in a way that systemically excludes Tribes and Native communities.” 

Native American communities have been hit particularly hard by the virus, flooding rural and tribal hospital systems with patients.

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The funding for tribes was delayed due to disputes over whether corporations affiliated with tribes should receive funds.

A form to apply for the assistance asked applicants to list either their total tribal population or their number of shareholders, a nod to the numerous corporations owned by Alaska Natives that make money from vast land and oil holdings. Their profits do not typically go into tribal coffers.

The controversy resulted in calls for the resignation of Tara Sweeney, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for Indian affairs. Sweeney is an Alaska native and former vice president with the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, one of the corporations that would have been eligible for stimulus funding. 

A court sided with tribes that argued the funds were intended for governments assisting with the pandemic.

U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta said giving “dollars to for-profit corporations does not jibe” with the law’s “general purpose of funding the emergency needs of ‘governments.’”

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“Tribes needed these funds right away, but the Trump administration put corporations first and delayed the process,” Rep. Deb HaalandDeb HaalandOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden's Interior Department temporarily blocks new drilling on public lands | Group of GOP senators seeks to block Biden moves on Paris, Keystone | Judge grants preliminary approval for 0M Flint water crisis settlement Biden's Interior Department temporarily blocks new drilling on public lands What Biden's Cabinet picks mean for the hardest-hit US industry MORE (D-N.M.), co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus, tweeted after Treasury’s announcement. “It shouldn’t have taken this long, but I’m glad Native communities will start getting some relief.” 

The White House held a roundtable with some Native leaders Tuesday, issuing a proclamation outlining support for the community and noting that the administration distributed 150 ventilators to tribes, along with distributing testing supplies to the Indian Health Service.

President TrumpDonald TrumpIran's leader vows 'revenge,' posting an image resembling Trump Former Sanders spokesperson: Biden 'backing away' from 'populist offerings' Justice Dept. to probe sudden departure of US attorney in Atlanta after Trump criticism MORE said the administration is deploying the “full resources” of the federal government to help tribes.

“Together we are fighting for everybody, but we are fighting this terrible coronavirus," Trump said. "It is a tough opponent but we are winning."