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Funding bill to help Navajo Nation enterprises clears tribal council

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — The Navajo Nation Council passed a measure to provide $18.7 million in supplemental funding to help four tribal enterprises as they continue to financially navigate the coronavirus pandemic.

Legislation No. 0016-21 initially proposed using $34.1 million from the Unreserved Undesignated Fund Balance but the amount was reduced as it was considered by the standing committees.

Under the appropriation, the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise would receive the most at $15 million, followed by Navajo Arts and Crafts Enterprise at $2 million, Navajo Nation Hospitality Enterprise at $1.4 million and Navajo Nation Shopping Centers Inc. at $296,241.

Navajo Tribal Utility Authority and Navajo Engineering and Construction Authority removed their requests for funding.

Casinos operated by the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise have been closed since March 17, 2020. The Navajo Nation Council approved a bill to provide financial help to four tribal enterprises, including gaming.

Delegates spent two days discussing the measure, first on Feb. 11 in a regular meeting of the Naa'bik'íyáti' Committee then on Feb. 12 at a council special session.

Discussions about the bill were divided, with questions that centered on the gaming enterprise, which would use the amount to replenish the casino treasury, fund payroll and health insurance coverage and pay expenses related to reopening casinos in New Mexico and Arizona.

Controller Pearline Kirk explained during the Naa'bik'íyáti' Committee meeting that her office reviewed financial options to help the gaming enterprise.

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The recommendation was using the UUFB because it is an unrestricted fund and the amount would be in the form of a "grant," Kirk said.

She also mentioned that the loan between the tribe and the gaming enterprise is in forbearance until March.

The gaming enterprise closed its four casinos in March 2020. Since then it has received help from the federal Paycheck Protection Program and $24.6 million from the amount the tribe received under the federal coronavirus relief bill.

During the council's debate, Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty expressed concern about the tribal government repeatedly helping the enterprise and said the bill represents the need to "reevaluate" the operation.

"Time and time again, we constantly as a council through one way or another are asked to subsidize gaming," Crotty said. "I think in terms of what we're doing as a council there should be a thorough assessment of the future of gaming on Navajo Nation."

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Delegates from the Northern Agency were split in voting on the bill, which was approved in a vote of 18 in favor and five opposed. Crotty and Delegate Charlaine Tso voted against the legislation while Delegates Eugenia Charles-Newton and Rick Nez supported it.

Nez reminded delegates that gaming is facing hardship because it was deemed non-essential and forced to close.

"They operated on their own from the time they were allowed to operate," he added.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez has 10 calendar days after the bill is submitted to his office to sign, veto or use his line-item authority on the measure.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times and can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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