Professional golfer Notah Begay III stands outside the Navajo Nation Council Chamber in Window Rock, Ariz. Begay attended the council session on Tuesday to
Professional golfer Notah Begay III stands outside the Navajo Nation Council Chamber in Window Rock, Ariz. Begay attended the council session on Tuesday to advocate for a pair of healthy food initiatives that were under consideration by tribal lawmakers. (Noel Lyn Smith/The Daily Times)

WINDOW ROCK, ARIZ. — The cost of buying a bag of chips or a case of soda on the Navajo Nation will remain the same, but fresh produce will be a little cheaper.

Members of the Navajo Nation Council on Tuesday failed to override a presidential veto that would have enacted an additional 2 percent sales tax on junk food purchased on the reservation.

Legislation containing the override failed by a vote of 13 in favor and seven opposed. It needed at least 16 votes to pass during the spring session in the council chamber in Window Rock, Ariz.

The council did override the veto to eliminate the 5 percent sales tax on fresh fruits and vegetables, water, nuts, seeds and nut butters in a vote of 19 in favor and one opposed.

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly vetoed both bills in February because, he said, the tribal government is not prepared to implement and collect taxes on junk food.

For three years, the Diné Community Advocacy Alliance has advocated for the proposals because the group is concerned with the diabetes epidemic among Navajo people. According to the Navajo Area Indian Health Service, about 25,000 Navajos are diabetic and about 75,000 are pre-diabetic.

Deborah Cayedito, a member of the Diné Community Advocacy Alliance, said it was bittersweet to have one bill fail and the other pass.

"My heart fell. I felt very defeated," Cayedito said after the council voted on the junk food tax. "We also had the other legislation, which is elimination of purchases for healthy foods where you would not be taxed. That was passed, and that raised my heart back up."

Cayedito said the group will not quit its advocacy and will continue public education.

Delegate Danny Simpson, who sponsored both bills when the council passed them in January, said he plans to again sponsor similar legislation to implement the junk food tax. He said he would like the council to consider the bill during the summer session in July.

In a small gathering outside the chamber, Delegate Jonathan Nez told Diné Community Advocacy Alliance members that an alternative could be to place the taxation issue before the Navajo people as a referendum on the general election ballot in November.

From left, Legislative District Assistant Claudia Jackson, professional golfer Notah Begay III and Navajo Nation Council delegate Elmer Begay talk on
From left, Legislative District Assistant Claudia Jackson, professional golfer Notah Begay III and Navajo Nation Council delegate Elmer Begay talk on Tuesday in the council chamber in Window Rock, Ariz. (Noel Lyn Smith/The Daily Times)

"There will be discussions at the dinner tables, in shopping centers, everywhere," Nez said, adding that awareness of the issue will keep the initiative alive.

During the council session, proponents advocated for passage of the overrides during a 15-minute presentation to delegates. Delegate Jonathan Hale, who sponsored the pair of override bills, was joined by Diné Community Advocacy Alliance member Denisa Livingston and professional golfer Notah Begay III during the talk.

Livingston said the enactment of both measures is "critical" because it addresses the health crisis on the Navajo Nation.

"This legislation, its sole purpose is to do good," Livingston said, explaining it would provide the resources needed to build health facilities and promote health education.

Revenue from the junk food sales tax would have funded development of community wellness projects such as parks, fitness centers, basketball courts, trails, community gardens, picnic grounds and health education classes.

"You have the opportunity to set the standards for the rest of the world," she said. "Together, we can protect the health of our people."

Begay said his family, like many on the Navajo Nation, is affected by diabetes. Reducing that risk is one reason he said he supports the additional tax. Begay said his work requires him to travel to Native communities across the country, and he sees similar health issues in each community.

"I think this message goes much further than a simple tax. It will resonant and ripple through Indian Country saying that we finally have a government that is willing to take a stand on this issue," he said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and nsmith@daily-times.com. Follow her on Twitter @nsmithdt on Twitter.