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Carina Dominguez
Indian Country Today

U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema met with the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona recently to discuss the infrastructure investments for tribal communities.

The discussion, held virtually on Jan. 7, was an opportunity for the senator's office to better understand how to assist tribes with accessing the more than $13 billion in funds allocated to tribes in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

“One of the first concerns I heard was ensuring that the funds that were allocated through the new infrastructure law are able to be dispersed to communities in a fast and efficient and effective way,” Sinema, an Arizona Democrat, said.

“The good news is my team has already started working with both the tribal communities and federal agencies to determine how best to get these funds flowing to tribal communities, whether it be through federal agencies or through self-governance agreements, to get them out the door as quickly as possible,” Sinema added.

She's been accused of being a Democrat in name only. This week senate Democrats are pushing to advance a long-stalled voting, ethics and elections package but face an uphill battle without the support of centrists Sinema and Sen. Joe Manchin, of West Virginia.

Sinema says she originally co-sponsored the John Lewis Voting Rights Act but does not support amending the 60-vote threshold to advance the bill.

“Arizonans are also familiar with my long stated and firmly held belief that we must support the Senate's 60 vote threshold that will protect our country from repeated radical reversals in federal policy,” Sen. Sinema told Indian Country Today.

Several tribes were a part of the infrastructure call including Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community, Colorado River Indian Tribes, Tohono O’odham Nation, Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, White Mountain Apache Tribe and the Hopi Tribe.

Kyrsten Sinema meets with tribal leaders. Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Lewis hopes for the senator's continued support (Photo by Carina Dominguez, Indian Country Today)

Gila River Gov. Stephen Lewis said he was thankful that Sinema was one of the senators who ensured tribal governments were included in meaningful ways.

“The main topic of discussion was the infrastructure bill and for Indian Country that is a significant investment,” Lewis said.

He said the tribe signed a new annual funding agreement with the Bureau of Reclamation that increased funding for irrigation projects and water delivery systems, helping implement the water settlement in the community. It increased from $20 million to $92 million.

“This funding is going to ensure that the Gila River Indian Community really can complete long standing water infrastructure projects that would've taken at least a decade,” Lewis said.

Sinema says she and other lawmakers ensured there was funding, $2.5 billion to be exact, to pay for all currently authorized Indian water rights settlements. 

“And as you know, that's a constant struggle to get Congress to approve the funding for those settlements. And every single settlement that is approved is now authorized to get full funding. So those are some of the landmark achievements in this legislation that wouldn't have happened under a different type of bill,” Sinema said.

Roads were another topic discussed at the meeting. Lewis talked about an Interstate 10 widening project that will go through the tribe’s land in southern Arizona.

It’s a multijurisdiction project between the tribe, state and federal government that will increase public safety and create jobs for the community.

“We're gonna continue working closely together to ensure that the local Arizona DOT, as well as the federal department of transportation are working hand in hand with each of these tribal communities,” Sinema said.

Broadband was another major topic of discussion.

“Our infrastructure law sets aside $2 billion of additional funding for the tribal broadband connectivity program. So this is additional funding over and above what we allocated in the ARPA bill,” Sinema said.

Lewis said he told Sinema that it’s essential to make sure The American Rescue Plan Act and the infrastructure bill work together to ensure tribes get the ability to execute plans.

He said the rescue act was only for broadband, wastewater and sewer and did not include roads and roads are a crucial part of critical infrastructure. 

Lewis said tribes need more flexibility for spending money and called for support of Senate Bill 3011, which would allow tribes to spend COVID-19 relief funds in new categories.

Sinema says this investment in America’s infrastructure “also makes historic investments in tribal communities.”

“Many tribal leaders have noted, it's often difficult to get Congress to pay attention to tribal communities and to place them on even footing with local cities, towns, and state governments. And in this legislation we ensured that tribal governments received dedicated funds for the issues important in their communities,” Sinema said.

Lewis recalled when Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg went to the Gila River community last year and met with tribal leaders from Arizona.

“He made a commitment that he would make sure that tribes are included in the discussion and especially with the infrastructure funds to make sure that tribes are treated equally and that there is no hold up with funds,” Lewis said.

Tribal leaders are looking forward to getting critical infrastructure in place.

“We can bring innovative solutions if we're allowed to,” Lewis said.

The Department of Interior is hosting tribal consultations Jan. 26-28 and the meetings are closed to the public. The department is inviting tribes to submit written comments to consultation@bia.gov by Feb. 4, 2022.

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