Navajo council votes to uphold presidential line-item veto

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - The presidential line-item veto was upheld Dec. 30 during a special session of the Navajo Nation Council, when council members failed to override the veto authority, which needed 16 votes.

Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates excused himself from his role as speaker to actively vote in favor of the legislation. In his absence he delegated Jonathan Hale as speaker pro tem.

The final vote was 10 yea, 12 nay and two council members did not vote.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye and Vice President Jonathan Nez, who were both in attendance for a time in the morning, said they wanted to express their thanks to the 12 delegates who stepped forward and stood with the people against the legislation.

"By doing so, these delegates have reaffirmed their support of the people who elected them into office," Begaye said. "We wanted to express our deepest appreciation to the people of the Navajo Nation who today defended their right to speak, be heard and not be overwritten by their elected officials."

Nez said 12 delegates acknowledged that the voice of the people supersedes anything any elected official does.

"This includes council delegates themselves," he said.

The legislation, sponsored by Council Delegate Alton Joe Shepherd, sought to amend certain provisions in the Navajo Nation Code. The resolution included an amendment that said "the veto of a budget line-item shall only be to the numeric appropriated dollar amount."

Shepherd said following the vote there still remains a need to clarify the extent of the line-item veto authority.

"If it is to go back to the people to clarify, then who will take the lead in initiating the referendum process to do so?" he asked, noting that initiating a referendum would require a great deal of time and resources to gather signatures to place the question on the ballot.

Bates said that without clarity on the matter, he anticipates issues will continue if Begaye continues to overstep the authority granted by the people.

"We will continue to stand on the facts of this and any matter and share those facts with the public," he said.

Shepherd said during his presentation that there was a lot of misinformation regarding the legislation.

"I want to emphasize that this legislation does not attempt to override the authority granted by the Navajo people," he said. "We are not attempting to amend or take away the authority granted by the Navajo people."

During the presentation, Shepherd said Begaye's use of the line-item authority in November to deny certain funds for the St. Michaels Association for a special education program was one example of the president overstepping his authority by appropriating dollars, a legislative function.

The council unanimously approved the legislation, which appropriated approximately $2.4 million in funding to help the program provide services for special needs children, with no amendments.

Shepherd pointed out that despite the legislation going through the proper process, Begaye used line-item veto authority to deny approximately $1.8 million from the program.

"At that point, he began legislating," Shepherd said. "The president is inching toward abusing the line-item authority. This clarification is intended to ensure checks and balances to ensure the appropriation of funds goes through the proper process..."

Begaye and Nez said the St. Michaels group brought the proposal over to them and they all went through it together.

"I told them that the Navajo Nation does not normally fund non-profit organizations because they ... have access to multitudes of funding sources that the Navajo Nation government entities do not," Begaye said.

Begaye and Nez told the group specifically that they would approve certain items they felt were pertinent to the continued operation of the school and also told the group specifically which items they would disapprove of.

"I reassured them that I would not sign off on every item that was in the proposal," Begaye said. "That was the understanding we developed before they left."

Therefore, when the line-item veto was used, the St. Michael's administration was well informed, Begaye said.

"In fact, I approved more items than I originally said I would," he said. "So I gave them several hundred thousands of dollars more than I said."

Following the session, Bates said the council will continue to monitor the president's use of the line-item veto authority and called for the president to communicate with the council on a regular basis.

"This situation could have been resolved weeks ago had President Begaye honored the council's invitations to meet and discuss this matter," Bates said. "Moving forward I recommend that President Begaye meet and communicate with the council to address the many important issues at hand. His failure to do so thus far has brought us to this point."

Nez said he has met with Bates and Shepherd to address the line-item veto override and to discuss any possible compromises.

"We had met to specifically discuss the line-item veto," he said. "What's the compromise? I asked them what they wanted. There was no response. I guess there is nothing to talk about then."

Nez pointed to a letter dated Dec.17 Peterson Zah for the Office of the President and Vice President delivered to the Naabik'iyati Committee, which, he said, offered a compromise.

The letter read, "I agree to sign into law the Title Two amendment's legislation as originally recommended and submitted by the Title Two Subcommittee."

After the vote, Begaye said the people won.

"They stood strong, they united and continued to demand that their voices be heard by their delegates," Begaye said. "It is from the Navajo people that we should always generate any type of decision that we make."

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