Navajo Nation Chapters still waiting for jackpot

Gaming revenue not making it's way to local chapters, Budget and Finance Committee looks to clarify how money can be used to benefit Navajos at local level

Money from Navajo Nation Casinos is sitting unused in an account that doesn’t earn interest. Photo/Cronkite News

Money from Navajo Nation Casinos is sitting unused in an account that doesn’t earn interest. Photo/Cronkite News

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Since 2008, the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise has given the Navajo Nation $6 million dollars in gaming revenue but that money hasn't made it's way back to any of the Nation's 110 chapters.

The Navajo Nation Budget and Finance Committee members said they are looking to clarify how that gaming money is distributed to the chapters on the Nation.

The gaming money goes back to the Nation after the Enterprise has taken out operating costs, expenses, capital costs and borrowing costs from the net revenue generated.

The Navajo Nation Council established the Gaming Revenues Fund Management Plan, which says that the allocation of money to chapters will happen in a "manner that recognizes both the immediate and long-term needs of the Navajo Nation, specifically for capital improvement projects and utilities."

The allocation of that money is also guided by the Indian Regulatory Gaming Act of 1988, which says that the money can be used for government services and education by tribes in accordance with a Revenue Allocation Plan.

Gaming Enterprise CEO Derrick Watchman said smaller tribes with a smaller number of people have plans that allow some gaming money to be "per capitaed" out, that each individual member would get a portion of the money. The Navajo Nation, in the 2000s, decided there would not be any per capita, primarily because of the number of Navajo's, 300,000 plus. If you split $6 million by 300,000, each individual would get $20.

"Since we're rural, we don't make the kind of money that you see in California and New York," Watchman said. "When the Nation said, 'we're going to move forward with gaming' I think a lot of us thought, 'wow, that means I will get a per capita.' A lot of us are familiar and aware of some of the tribes around the country, individuals get money. Families in California get $40,000 or $50,000 per year. But we just don't generate that kind of money."

Another complication of excluding per capita is that money in the Gaming Distribution Fund cannot be used individually, Watchman said.

"In other words, you can't use the gaming fund and go out and give it to a person," Watchman said. "The funding has to be used in common for the Navajo people or for the chapter."

He explained that sometimes chapters use chapter money to help people who need assistance or family needs, emergency monies for a home burning or things like that. The chapter uses its money to get a home for a family whose house burned.

"In those situations, you cannot use gaming money for that because that is deemed to be a per cap and the Nation said, 'we don't do that,'" Watchman said. "The gaming money has to be used primarily for in common chapter related expenditures."

But so far, the Nation has not distributed any of the money to the chapters. According to Navajo Nation Office of the Controller general accounting manager Robert Willie, the money is sitting in an account not earning interest, but he said it is reserved for the chapters. In addition the Navajo Nation Department of Justice said any projects on a chapter level that receive money must be "shovel-ready before the money is distributed to the chapters and the Navajo Nation Office of the Controller would pay the vendors directly - the chapters themselves do not receive money directly.

Watchman said the Gaming Enterprise is doing its job by operating businesses and employing people. He said, the left over money the casinos generate has been distributed to the Nation and the Nation, through the council's Budget and Finance Committee, is working to simplify a process for how the money can be used.

Watchman said the enterprise contributes to the Nation in addition to the gaming revenue by generating millions of dollars, employing Navajo workers, paying fees to the Nation, paying sales tax, paying millions of dollars in interest to the Nation on loans. At Twin Arrows, two wells were dug, which became inventory of the Nation. In addition, lots of money goes back to the state through revenue sharing, almost $10,000,000 and entertainment dollars stay local on the Nation.

"We generate a lot of direct and indirect resources back to the Nation," Watchman said, adding that New Mexico allocates some money back to the chapters through their budget process.

But the lack of money coming to the Navajo chapters is still an issue. Budget and Finance Committee member and Council Delegate Mel Begay expressed his concern about the distribution process and educating chapters on options that are available to them.

"I think it is important to have presentation material that outlines the process," he said. "What the chapters are telling me is that they do not know what the process is and I think it is important to revisit this and get that to them. The process I see presented is not working for the chapters."

BFC chair and Council Delegate Seth Damon agreed saying he was disappointed that the process has caused so much confusion to chapters and that they have not received any of the money yet.

"The casinos have been operating for almost eight years and the chapters still have not received one dime from the revenues," he said. "We need a work session to clarify the process and find ways to streamline their proposals so they can start utilizing the funds."

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