Dalton Walker
Indian Country Today

The deadline to spend CARES Act money is near, and a potential extension appears less likely each day as tribes work to meet it.

Some tribal leaders have asked Congress to get involved, but any related legislation had little to no movement. Tribes, like city and state governments, are required to spend the relief dollars by the Dec. 30 deadline or be forced to return unspent pandemic aid to the Treasury Department.

In a November letter to congressional delegates, Spokane Tribal Business Council Chairwoman Carol Evans said it was “absolutely critical” to her tribal government to get an extension.

The tribe received about $25 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. Evans asked elected officials representing Washington state, home of the Spokane Tribe of Indians, to support a Senate bill that targeted September 2021 as a new deadline. The bill has since stalled.

“If this legislation is not passed, our tribe, along with numerous others, may have to return unused funds to the Department of Treasury,” Evans wrote. “This would be devastating given how much we are trying to do to assist our tribal members, community and employees.”

Tribes like Evans’ have faced an uphill climb in spending coronavirus relief dollars.

The CARES Act was signed into law in March, and money was distributed soon after. But tribes didn’t start receiving their $8 billion portion until May due to an ongoing legal dispute with Alaska Native corporations. Roughly half of the allocated dollars for tribes was distributed in May, and other dollars didn’t come until weeks later.

Factoring in strict spending guidelines, allocating the money efficiently and effectively on a strict deadline — while dealing with a pandemic — would be a challenge for any government.

Tyrel Stevenson, legislative affairs director for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe in Idaho, told the Spokesman-Review that the pandemic won’t end in late December.

“The hard-and-fast deadline is really artificial in the face of what’s happening on the ground,” he said. “We’re clearly going to experience costs and hardships beyond Dec. 30.”

Others have also tried for an extension.

More than 30 attorney generals signed a Nov. 30 letter addressed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, seeking a December 2021 extension. Attorney generals representing states with multiple tribes, like Montana, Minnesota and Wisconsin, signed the letter.

In July, Rep. Tom O'Halleran, an Arizona Democrat, introduced legislation that would extend the deadline by two years to December 2022, in part because of the delay in tribes receiving dollars. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Hopi Tribe Chairman Timothy Nuvangyaoma both supported the bill.

O’Halleran said the measure had House support but got no traction in the Republican-led Senate. He said he’s been working on a new bill that would provide tribes additional money, and it wouldn’t have a deadline for spending.

The CARES Act deadline “doesn’t make any sense to me,” O’Halleran said. “First of all, the deadline for tribal funding was (at) the end of December on the year it was given. You either have to spend it real fast without the ability to get these projects done in a way that’s efficient or productive, or you’re allowed, what I tried to allow in my bill I put forward, a two-year extension.”

The Navajo Nation, one of the largest tribes in Indian Country, received $714 million in CARES Act funding and raced to allocate the dollars.

Vehicles line up for COVID-19 testing outside of the Monument Valley Health Center in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, on Friday, April 17, 2020. More than a thousand people got tested over the course of two days. The Navajo Nation has one of the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rates in the country. (Kristin Murphy/The Deseret News via AP)

Nez said in July that the Navajo Nation was working “around the clock to expedite” CARES funds. In October, the tribe announced that it had allocated all of the relief dollars.

For another tribe, a bigger issue than the deadline was the formula used to determine how much money each tribe received.

Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Chairman Harold Frazier said he was disappointed in the amount allocated to his people. Cheyenne River got about $28 million in relief dollars. He said his tribe will meet the spending deadline.

During the pandemic’s early days, Cheyenne River set up checkpoints on highways that run through the reservation in South Dakota in an effort to keep away the coronavirus. The move was criticized by Republican Gov. Kristi Noem, who also threatened legal action against the tribe. Eventually, Cheyenne River filed a lawsuit against federal government officials in relation to the checkpoints.

Some of the CARES Act money was spent on employing those protecting the reservation from COVID-19, Frazier said.

“The thing that I didn't like about the CARES Act is that we didn't get enough funds on Cheyenne River. When we have 21,000 members and 3 million acres of land, it just wasn't enough,” he said.

“Our needs are so great, I’ll be honest, we could have used another $20 million.”

Meanwhile, top Capitol Hill negotiators sealed a deal Sunday on an almost $1 trillion COVID-19 economic relief package, finally delivering long-overdue help to businesses and individuals and providing money to deliver vaccines to a nation eager for them.

The agreement, announced by congressional leaders, would establish a temporary $300 per week supplemental jobless benefit and a $600 direct stimulus payment to most Americans, along with a new round of subsidies for hard-hit businesses and money for schools, health care providers and renters facing eviction.

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Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter: @daltonwalker Walker is based in Phoenix and enjoys Arizona winters.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.