WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — On Feb. 5, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye used the line-item veto authority to deny approximately $242,000 in supplemental funding intended to help the Navajo people by providing emergency response services because of recent winter storms.
Begaye said the resolution approved by the council Jan. 25 to provide funding to 33 chapters from the Unreserved, Undesignated Fund Balance (UUFB) was not in compliance with Navajo Nation Code, which requires the minimum fund balance to be maintained at no less than 10 percent of the Nation’s General Fund Operating Balance for the prior fiscal year.
“…this request for supplemental funding will cause the (minimum fund balance) to go below the 10 percent requirement, which is therefore in violation…,” Begaye said.
Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates said the funding was provided to chapters which each had a balance of less than $10,000 for emergency response efforts. He said several chapters had zero dollars to help in the event of an emergency.
Bates added the actions of the council were in response to calls for help that came from individual Navajo people and chapters, and despite Begaye’s claim that not all chapters declared an emergency, the Navajo Nation Commission on Emergency Management did declare an emergency Jan. 23 for the entire Navajo Nation that was concurred and signed by Begaye and Vice President Jonathan Nez.
“The emergency funding is the council’s response to the people and chapters after hearing from the Emergency Management Commission on conditions at the chapters,” Bates said.
In a memorandum addressed to Bates, Begaye outlined his reasoning for denying the funds, which relies on an opinion issued by the attorney general and an analysis provided by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
Begaye also noted that the chapter accounts used were dated Sep. 30, 2016, and should have been based on up-to-date numbers. According to Begaye, when a chapter declares an emergency, it is allowed to transfer monies from non-restricted accounts, therefore, the accounts may have been fully replenished.
Bates pointed out that the Division of Community Development is responsible for tracking those balances and maintaining accurate information.
“The Division of Community Development is under the executive branch, therefore under the watch of the president, and I agree that his office should do a better job of overseeing the finances of the Navajo Nation,” Bates said.
Begaye said the resolution included chapters that had not declared a State of Emergency and chapters that had declared a State of Emergency were not included.
“It is important that we use our limited resources mindfully and direct the supplemental funding to the appropriate areas,” Nez said.
Begaye requested a formal opinion from the Attorney General Ethel Branch, which stated the resolution did not properly amend the minimum fund balance of the Nation and attempted to waiver 12 N.N.C. 820(J), which was not statutorily authorized.
“I am held to the highest standard of ensuring the fiscal responsibility and integrity of the Nation, Begaye said. “Our people should expect nothing less. For these reasons, I must line-item veto this resolution.”
Bates said the advice provided to the president is incorrect.
Bates pointed out that on Jan. 17, Begaye signed into law a separate and nearly identical resolution that contained the exact same waiver language pertaining to the Minimum Fund Balance (MFB). The resolution passed by Council, CJA-02-17, provided approximately $5 million in funding for General Assistance and Welfare Services to benefit Navajo families after the Division of Social Services failed to secure federal funding.
“President Begaye is clearly showing a lack of consistency in applying his interpretation of the laws of the Navajo Nation,” Bates said. “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 wants to apply his interpretations of our laws.”
In his line item veto message, Begaye wrote that Title 12 “requires any distribution to the chapters must be based on the 50/50 requirement.”
“Title 12 clearly states that funding which is intended for ‘all chapters’ is required to be distributed based on the 50/50 distribution formula — this funding was clearly intended for 33 chapters only,” Bates said. “OMB did not advise the president correctly in their analysis.”
Bates noted that the council frequently approves funding for individual chapters for various purposes, including power lines, renovations and others.
Bates said the attorney general and OMB had an opportunity to bring up the concerns at the time when the council was debating the legislation, during the Winter Council Session.
“At each council session, the attorney general and OMB have designated seats at the table and these concerns could have been shared with the council at that time,” Bates said. “The attorney general and OMB are developing a trend of raising concerns after the fact and most times the concerns are off-base which is unfortunate for the president, who should have correct information.”
Council Delegate Seth Damon, who sponsored the legislation, said he is very disappointed with the line-item veto, noting that chapters have spent an average of $8,000 - $15,000 in efforts to help community members impacted by the recent weather.
“These funds were intended to help our people,” Damon said. “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. If you are one of the ones stuck in the mud and cannot get home or your children have to walk home in ankle deep mud from the bus stop, it is the president who should give you and your children a ride home in his tribal vehicle since he will not provide funds to the chapters to help.”
The president said he encourages the council to utilize the UUFB rather than the MFB in requesting for supplemental funding that addresses emergency situations.
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