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 Terner MnuchinOn The Money: Powell, Mnuchin stress limits of emergency loans | House seeks to salvage vote on spending bill | Economists tell lawmakers: Kill the virus to heal the economy Economists spanning spectrum say recovery depends on containing virus Powell, Mnuchin stress limits of current emergency lending programs 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 UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallLWCF modernization: Restoring the promise OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats tee up vote on climate-focused energy bill next week | EPA reappoints controversial leader to air quality advisory committee | Coronavirus creates delay in Pentagon research for alternative to 'forever chemicals' Senate Democrats demand White House fire controversial head of public lands agency 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.’”

“Tribes needed these funds right away, but the Trump administration put corporations first and delayed the process,” Rep. Deb HaalandDebra HaalandHispanic caucus report takes stock of accomplishments with eye toward 2021 Rep. Robin Kelly enters race for Democratic caucus vice chair OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Democrats push resolution to battle climate change, sluggish economy and racial injustice | Senators reach compromise on greenhouse gas amendment stalling energy bill | Trump courts Florida voters with offshore drilling moratorium 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 John TrumpOmar fires back at Trump over rally remarks: 'This is my country' Pelosi: Trump hurrying to fill SCOTUS seat so he can repeal ObamaCare Trump mocks Biden appearance, mask use ahead of first debate 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."