Begaye vetoes funding for disaster assistance

Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez, left, listens to Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye deliver the State of the Nation address during the fall session last year in Window Rock, Ariz.

FARMINGTON — A Navajo Nation Council resolution to provide $242,576 in supplemental funding to 33 chapters to use for disaster relief services was line-item vetoed on Sunday by tribal President Russell Begaye.

The president's action was announced today in a press release from his office in Window Rock, Ariz.

The bill containing the proposal for supplemental funding was approved by the council at the winter session last month and the amount would have been allocated from the minimum balance of the Unreserved Undesignated Fund Balance.

Five chapters in San Juan County were among those that would have received funding.

When the council passed the bill on Jan. 25, the 33 chapters each had a balance of less than $10,000 to help residents respond to recent winter weather, according to a press release issued today by the Office of the Speaker.

Begaye's reasons for using his line-item veto authority were explained in a three-page memorandum sent to Speaker LoRenzo Bates and the council.

The president wrote that the resolution did not comply with tribal law, including a requirement that the UUFB's minimum balance hold an amount that is not less than 10 percent of the previous fiscal year's budget.

He added that tribal law requires any distribution to chapters must be divided in a manner where 50 percent of the funding is equally distributed among the 110 chapters and the remaining half allocated based on the number of registered voters within each chapter.

"As leaders, we must respect and uphold our Navajo Nation Code, as we are not above the law," Begaye wrote.

In the written message, the president refers to a memorandum by Dominic Beyal, executive director of the Office of Management and Budget, and to a legal opinion by Attorney General Ethel Branch.

Beyal wrote that his office compiled chapter balances using information as of Jan. 27, but the results were unreliable because accurate and current information has not been maintained by the chapters and the Division of Community Development.

He added that when the bill was drafted and then introduced, there was no available balance in the UUFB but a revised report from the acting controller showed the minimum balance held about $12.2 million and the UUFB had about $4.1 million available.

Delegate Seth Damon, who sponsored the legislation, tried to amend the bill to change the funding source from the minimum balance to the UUFB, Beyal wrote.

Although the amendment was considered by the council, the decision was made not to change the funding source, which lowered the minimum balance below the amount required by tribal law and may affect the tribe's credit rating, he wrote.

Damon expressed disappointment in the president's action in the release from the speaker's office.

"These funds were intended to help our people. We are still in the middle of the winter season and due to the action of President Begaye, many chapters will not have emergency response funds when another storm arrives," Damon said.

In the same release, Speaker Bates remarked that Begaye's action comes after he approved using $5 million from the minimum balance to help public assistance programs.

"If President Begaye believes that this recent resolution violates the law then he himself violated the law on Jan. 17 when he approved a nearly identical resolution. The president cannot pick and choose when he wanted to apply his interpretations of our laws," Bates said.

He added that despite Begaye's claim that the council violated tribal law in how the money was to be distributed, the bill did state the funding was for 33 chapters and the council has previously approved funding for individual chapters.

As for the issues raised by Beyal and Branch, Bates said both have designated representatives sitting at council sessions and they had the opportunity to voice their concerns when the legislation was under discussion.

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