Navajo Nation leaders divided on challenge to presidential line-item veto
WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - A disagreement broke out Dec. 16 between the Navajo Nation executive and legislative branches about a challenge to the line-item veto authority with both sides claiming they are upholding the voice of the people.
The Naabik'íyáti' Committee met Dec. 17. Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye was not in attendence, even though Navajo Nation Speaker LoRenzo Bates requested Begaye's presence at the meeting.
"As leaders of our respective branches of government I firmly believe that we can resolve this matter and move the government forward," Bates said before the meeting in a press release. "This offer to meet with the Naabik'íyáti' Committee is in the spirit of K'é and as leaders we can exhibit our commitment to the principle on One Nation, One Voice by talking this matter out."
Former president Peterson Zah, who currently serves as an executive staff assistant in the Begaye and Vice President Jonathan Nez office, informed committee members that Begaye was unable to attend because he was at a meeting with the Colorado River Water Users Association in Las Vegas. Zah distributed a letter to Naabik'iyátí' Committee members from Begaye, in which he outlined a proposed compromise that requested Delegate Alton Joe Shepherd withdraw the override legislation. Begaye stated that he would support a new legislation that addresses the original intent of the legislation, which did not address the line-item veto authority.
Begaye, in a press release Dec. 17, said that the line-item veto authority was part of an initiative pursued in 2008 by former president Joe Shirly, Jr., to bring governmental fiscal responsibility back to the Nation. According to Begaye, on Dec. 15, 2009, the Navajo people voted 'yes' to give line-item authority to the president. On June 25, 2010, Shirley made history when he exercised the authority and issued the first line-item veto. Since that time, Shirley, former President Ben Shelly and, more recently, Begaye have all exercised the authority.
"There is nothing to debate [Dec. 18]. The line-item veto authority was given to the president directly by the people, only the people can limit and clarify this authority," Begaye said. "This is not a question for the Navajo Nation Council, this is a question only the Navajo people can answer. I have asked in my veto message that the council should not challenge the voice and vote of the people. That will continue to be my message."
On Nov. 12, Begaye vetoed the legislation. He said that the legislation attempts to amend the president's line-item veto authority, which is contrary to the 2009 initiative.
"The initiative passed by the people clearly states that amendments to the line-item veto authority can only be by the initiative process," Begaye said. "In other words, only the Navajo people can change this authority. It is not an authority that can be limited or amended by the Navajo Nation Council."
However, the legislative branch disagrees saying that the line-item veto authority actually
was granted through the referendum in 2009, giving the president the authority to veto "budget line items" in the annual budget and supplemental appropriations. The legislative branch said that Begaye exercised the authority to line-item veto six Conditions of Appropriations included in the Navajo Nation's FY2016 Comprehensive Budget, which was approved by the council in September.
Shepherd and Delegate Leonard Tsosie said that "budget line items" refer to appropriations or dollar amounts and not to legislative language such as conditions of appropriations.
Conditions of Appropriations or expenditure means a specific contingency placed on an appropriation by the Navajo Nation Council at the time the appropriation is made creating legal conditions precedent to the expenditure of funds. Appropriated funds or any other funds received by the Navajo Nation on which a condition of appropriation or expenditure is placed may not be lawfully expended until the condition of appropriation or expenditure is met. It is the responsibility of the controller to ensure that funds are expended in accordance with the conditions placed on the appropriation or expenditure.
"We are not attempting to take away what the people granted through the referendum vote," Shepherd said during the meeting. "The president will still have the line-item authority, but we are looking to clarify that authority to ensure checks and balances between the three-branches of government."
Shepherd, who gathered signatures and helped promote the approval of the line-item veto referendum in 2009, pointed out that the original intent of the referendum was to prevent excessive spending of public funds by allowing a sitting president to line-item veto "riders" or supplemental funding that is not included in the original language of a bill. Shepherd said that a large number of voters, who voted against the line-item veto referendum measure in 2009, stated that they were concerned that presidents would begin to abuse the authority in such a manner as Begaye's recent line-item vetoes.
Nez said that any direct impact to the budget are budget items, which include set asides, waivers and conditions of appropriations.
"The Navajo people passed this initiative to stop wasteful spending and ensure government fiscal responsibility and efficiency," Nez said. "This amendment can easily be used to manipulate the budget by hiding appropriations in other parts of the budget where the president's line-item veto authority is attempting to be removed. This is contrary to the initiative passed by the Navajo people."
Shepherd said three presidents have exercised the line-item veto authority with no clear definitions in place, and that Begaye is attempting to define the authority on his own.
Tsosie said that the election in 2009 happened before Begaye was a delegate to the council.
"If you read the history of the referendum movement it was about appropriations and it was not to excuse the executive branch from accountability," Tsosie said.
He explained that the COA's are intended to hold divisions and departments as well as staff accountable to ensure that they meet performance levels that serve the needs of the Navajo people.
"When the head of the executive branch says 'let me do what I want' then those accountability measures are gone," Tsosie said. "The president needs to be reasonable. He can't say that 100 percent of legislation is subject to line item veto."
Council Delegate Jonathan Perry (Becenti, Crownpoint, Huerfano, Lake Valley, Nageezi, Nahodishgish, Tse'ii'ahi, Whiterock), was one of several delegates who recommended that the council address the original legislation that did not include any language addressing the line-item veto authority.
"When we have a tug-of-war between the branches of government, we hurt the Navajo people," Perry said, who also shared his disappointment with misleading information distributed by the Office of the President last week and called for better communication from Begaye.
"I would ask OPVP to be very careful about what they put out and not to mislead the public," Perry said. "We want the president to be more open and have more communication with us. We need to keep our people in mind and not which branch of government has more power. We need to communicate with one another on this issue and decide how we move forward together."
Several council members raised concerns over Begaye's use of the line-item veto authority to remove conditions of appropriations that were approved by the ouncil in the FY2016 Comprehensive Budget in September.
Tsosie said Begaye overreached his authority when he line item vetoed numerous COA's in the FY2016 Comprehensive Budget.
Council Delegate Dwight Witherspoon (Black Mesa, Forest Lake, Hardrock, Pinon, Whippoorwill) expressed his concern over public misconceptions and claims made by the president that the council is attempting to override the voice of the people.
"We are not trying to take away the authority of the president," Witherspoon said. "Council has the authority to sanction programs and to hold them accountable through COA's. To try to take our authority away [by line-item vetoing COA's] is the reason why we're adding this language."
Council Delegate Nelson BeGaye (Lukachukai, Rock Point, Round Rock, Tsaile/Wheatfields, Tsé Ch' izhi) raised a question over whether or not the override, if approved by council, would change what voters approved through the referendum measure in 2009.
Attorney General Ethel Branch described the 2009 referendum language as "ambiguous" because of the lack of definition of the terms "budget items" as opposed to "budget line items." She added that she believes amendments or clarification to the line-item authority should be brought back to the public for consideration.
Chief Legislative Counsel Levon Henry said the council has the authority to introduce legislation to clarify the laws of the Navajo Nation, including the president's line-item veto authority.
"This amendment would clarify the initiative language, so going forward the council, president, and vice president know what this language means," Henry said. "We need to make it clear so the government can move forward."
Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty (Beclabito, Cove, Gadi'i'áhi/To'Koi, Red Valley, Tooh Haltsooi, Toadlena/Two Grey Hills, Tsé ałnáoz't'I'í) said that any changes to the law should be left to the Navajo people, while urging her council colleagues to consult with their constituents on the matter.
"We have to be very cautious," Crotty said. "I think the debate should be over whether there's room for compromise."
After the lengthy discussion, Naabik'iyátí' Committee members voted 10-7 to accept the report.
Following the report, the committee members voted 10-8 in support of Legislation No. 0398-15, which now moves on to the council for final consideration. The bill will require two-thirds approval, or 16 supporting votes, to override the president's veto of Resolution CO-46-15.