Policies could be set for using tax revenue

Noel Lyn Smith
Cashier Vanessa Rodriguez stocks the shelves Nov. 21, 2014, at the Quick Stop gas station and convenience store in Shiprock.

FARMINGTON — The Navajo Nation started a 2-percent tax on unhealthy foods more than a year ago, and a new bill is designed to develop policies for distributing that revenue.

The legislation calls for the establishment of the Healthy Diné Community Wellness Development Project guideline and distribution policy.

This policy would be based on the 2014 action by tribal leaders to impose a 2-percent tax on foods that have minimal to no nutritional value — such as chips, cookies, fried foods and soda — purchased from retail locations on the reservation. It also eliminated the 5 percent sales tax on fresh fruits and vegetables.

Revenue generated by the unhealthy food tax, which went into effect on April 1, 2015, will go toward projects that promote active and healthy lifestyles at the 110 chapters.

The Office of the Navajo Tax Commission did not response to a call about how much revenue has been collected by the tax.

The tribe's Division of Community Development is initiating development of the guideline and distribution policy, according to the bill.

Denisa Livingston, a community health advocate with the Diné Community Advocacy Alliance, said the legislation would establish direction for chapters to apply and utilize the tax revenue.

Last year, tribal lawmakers approved a fund management plan for revenue, and this bill is the next step, Livingston said.

Since the tax was applied, chapters have been asking when they can start tapping into the revenue to build areas such as playgrounds, basketball courts or offer exercise and food-demonstration programs, she said.

"They have their ideas ready. It's exciting," Livingston said.

Delegate Jonathan Hale is sponsoring the bill. The legislation became eligible for committee action on Wednesday and was assigned to the Health, Education and Human Services; Resources and Development; and Budget and Finance committees.

Kelly Charley is a member of the Navajo Prep Naat’áanii Youth Council, which has been helping with public education about the tax and its purpose.

"I think it's important for us to take care of ourselves, to progress forward," Charley said, adding the bill is an opportunity for the tribe to develop self-sufficiency.

She said she realizes it is a challenge to modify lifestyles but providing access to equipment and programs that promote exercise and health can help change opinions.

Charley said youth council members are supporting the bill and plan to attend the standing committee meetings.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.