Two weeks. $350 billion. (And a lot of tribes are waiting for help making payroll)

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin steps out of a meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 24, 2020, as the Senate works to pass a coronavirus relief bill. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Kolby KickingWoman

Small Business Administration says Payroll Protection Program is out of money

Kolby KickingWoman

Indian Country Today

As the United States and world abroad continue to grapple with the crippling effects of COVID-19, tribes across the country are trying to figure out how much of an $8 billion piece of pie they will receive through the Tribal Government Relief Fund.

Now the other major program, the Paycheck Protection Program, has run out of the $350 billion for loans and grants to continue to pay employees and other operating costs that have been impacted by COVID-19.

Thursday the Small Business Administration posted on its website: “Notice: Lapse in Appropriations. The SBA is currently unable to accept new applications for the Paycheck Protection Program based on available appropriations funding.” Congress remains divided about the next steps.

Earlier this week, the Department of the Treasury and the Small Business Administration held two tribal consultation calls regarding the Paycheck Protection Program and Employee Retention Credit portions of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act or CARES act.

Chairman Amber Torres, Walker River Paiute Tribe, was on for portions of both hour-long calls on Tuesday. She said it feels like the Department of Treasury is just checking off the tribal consultation box and they’re not taking into account what tribal leaders have to say.

“With Treasury coming out and consulting with us two separate times, four hours a piece and having to hear from tribal leaders from 574 tribes across the nation, then turn around and not listen to anybody; I think that's been the most blatant slap in the face to tribes is not being listened to,” Torres said. “You know, nobody knows how to run a tribe or what their tribe needs better than their tribal leaders within that community and it's just not being taken into account.”

Currently, small businesses that employ less than 500 people are eligible for the Payroll Protection Program, yet tribal casinos that fall under that stipulation are not.

In fact, as the rule is currently written, any business that derives one-third of its revenue from legal gaming is prohibited from applying for the Paycheck Protection Program.

As a smaller tribe, Torres said like a lot of tribes, she’s looking into what her tribe is eligible for to help slow the economic damage being caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You know, a lot of tribal entities or economic development ventures are being hurt right now and we're all trying to look at how we're going to bounce back from this,” she said. “What's available and is there equity and parity across the board?”

Similarly to Torres, Jonodev Chaudhuri, Creek Nation, former chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission and currently an attorney with Quarles & Brady LLP, felt the consultation appeared “pro forma” and that Indian Country had made loud and clear that tribal gaming facilities needed to be eligible for the Payroll Protection Program.

(Related story: The COVID-19 hit to Indian Country is nearly $50 billion)

“True consultation is meaningful consultation and in this case, if the decision has already been made not to include tribal gaming facilities, uh, it begs the question, what was the point, what was the purpose of consultation?” Chaudhuri said. “Obviously, Indian Country’s voices weren’t fully heard.”

Chaudhuri continued to say that not having tribal gaming facilities eligible for the Payroll Protection Program is nonsensical as these operations support Native and non-Native communities alike.

“These are the major, major employment drivers in rural communities throughout the country and for them not to be included in PPP is just mind boggling,” he said.

(Related story: Winners, losers and $8 billion is not enough)

As COVID-19 began to spread across the United States, tribes across the country voluntarily closed their doors before it was mandated. Sheila Morago, Gila River Indian Community, executive director of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association said tribes don’t have to wait for the federal government to reopen their establishments but will make informed decisions when that time comes.

“As sovereign nations, the tribes will continue to make decisions on their own accord, while gathering the best data possible from as many credible sources as possible to guide those decisions,” Morago said. “All tribes in Oklahoma acted to temporarily suspend gaming operations, in all Oklahoma counties they operate within, days before it was required by either the State of Oklahoma or specific cities or counties, and we have every faith that they will make wise decisions moving forward.”

It is not yet clear whether more stimulus packages will be coming from the federal government or the extent tribes will be included.

At the time, Indian Country stepped up and tribal gaming operations made difficult decisions to protect their patrons and should not be punished by being excluded from economic relief programs, Chaudhuri says.

“They should not be penalized for doing the right thing. Indian Country has always done the right thing and they've done it despite the fact that doing so cut off their economic lifeblood,” Chaudhuri said. “As Indian Country stepped up to the plate, the federal government needs to adhere to its responsibilities to support Indian Country for doing the right thing.”

Next steps up to Congress

Mnuchin, Schumer rev up talks as small-business aid runs dry

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin spoke Wednesday morning about legislation to shore up a paycheck subsidy program that has nearly reached its $349 billion lending limit. House and Senate Democratic aides spoke by phone with Treasury officials later in the day about Democratic demands for additional money for hospitals and state and local governments.

Reaching a deal won't be easy. The Capitol is largely shuttered, requiring consensus from all sides for any legislation to pass, and top GOP leaders are vowing to stick closely to Trump's request despite Democratic demands. Long-standing feuds and rivalries hang over the talks, including a toxic relationship between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Trump.

But the unprecedented legislative environment gives Democrats considerable influence, even if their funding requests for hospitals and state and local governments may have to be scaled back significantly or dropped, at least for now. Democrats blocked a fast-track bid to pass the funding last week, and Republicans in turn stymied their efforts for additional funding for other priorities in a brief debate that was mostly a messaging exercise.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., issued a joint statement with top House Republican Kevin McCarthy of California urging quick funding for the paycheck program. The Senate is away from Washington through May 4, though it convenes twice each week for pro forma sessions that could be used to pass more coronavirus aid — though only if no senator objects. 

Republicans amped up the pressure for a "clean" extension of the paycheck program in statements Wednesday night. House GOP Whip Steve Scalise said Democrats "need to stop holding small businesses and workers across America hostage to their endless spending demands."

But Democrats want money for hospitals burdened under COVID-19 caseloads and additional funding for states and local governments straining as the economy slides into recession.

Democrats also want to make sure the paycheck protection program is opened up more to businesses that don't have established relationships with banks that have been accepting applications for rescue funding.

"We cannot allow the billions, hundreds of billions of dollars being spent to fight the horror of the coronavirus and the impact on our economy to further harden the disparity of the lack of access to credit for so many in the small-business community," Pelosi said Wednesday afternoon on CNN. She also reiterated demands for "desperate state and local governments" and hospitals.

Pelosi is pressing to add money to be distributed by community development financial institutions, which are small, nontraditional lenders that focus on making loans in underdeveloped and underserved neighborhoods, typically communities with larger minority populations.

The outlook for the legislation is unclear at best, and negotiators may not be able to meet a potential deadline of Thursday afternoon's pro forma session.

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Kolby KickingWoman, Blackfeet/Gros Ventre is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is from the great state of Montana and currently reports and lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - kkickingwoman@indiancountrytoday.com

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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