Tribes To Tap $8B Fund For COVID-19 In Relief Bill

By Andrew Westney
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Law360 (March 26, 2020, 8:30 PM EDT) -- Native American leaders and federal lawmakers on Thursday welcomed $8 billion for a "stabilization fund" to support tribal governments dealing with the coronavirus pandemic as part of the $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill approved by the Senate.

The $8 billion fund is at the core of more than $10 billion in benefits available to tribes and tribal organizations under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which was passed by the Senate in a 96-0 vote Wednesday, with the U.S. House of Representatives expected to vote on the bill Friday.

The fund will pay for "emergency relief to tribal governments and offset costs incurred by Indian tribes due to the COVID-19 pandemic," according to a statement Thursday from Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, providing "important resources for Indian tribes to help health care providers, small businesses, schools, communities and individuals mitigate the impact of COVID-19 in tribal communities."

The Indian Health Service, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services agency, will receive more than $1 billion to help tribes pay for COVID-19 treatment and containment of the virus, with another $305 million going to Indian Housing Programs in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, $100 million to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations and $453 million to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for public safety and law enforcement.

The bill also makes tribes and tribal businesses eligible to receive $454 billion in loan guarantee funding as well as $349 billion through a U.S. Small Business Administration loan program.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said in a statement Wednesday after the bill's passage that it included "key victories" for tribes, but he already had an eye to the next round of funding to deal with the health crisis and boost the economy's recovery.

"As vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, I'm renewing my call for our next response package to include a tribal-specific title, and for pushing Congress and the Trump administration to make sure Indian Country has equal access to federal coronavirus resources," Udall said.

National Congress of American Indians CEO Kevin Allis told an online audience of tribal leaders Thursday that "the work is not done for us," as the intertribal organization is building a strategy "that will ensure that everything Congress intended in this legislation is properly implemented and distributed out to Indian Country."

"Just as we had a strategic approach to get stuff in the bill, and in future bills by the way, we're going to have a very focused and comprehensive strategic approach that now focuses on the [Trump] administration, to make sure they do what they've been asked to do," Allis said.

After days of false starts and intense closed-door negotiations with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the Senate approved the $2 trillion bill late Wednesday to help businesses and millions of unemployed workers survive a public health crisis that has quickly shut down entire sectors of the American economy and pushed health care providers to the brink.

The $8 billion "tribal stabilization fund" in Section 601 of the bill makes the emergency funds available from the Treasury Department, which will consult with the U.S. Department of the Interior's BIA, "to tribal governments who certify that the funds will be used to offset expenditures incurred due to the COVID-19 outbreak," according to Hoeven's statement.

Nearly $2.7 billion in supplemental appropriations in the bill includes funding for Bureau of Indian Education schools and $1.032 billion in Indian Health Service funding, with a minimum of $450 million going to tribes and urban Indian organizations, according to Hoeven's statement.

Tribes, tribal organizations and urban Indian organizations will receive $125 million directly from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and are also eligible to apply for $1.5 billion in grants and cooperative agreements from the CDC.

National Indian Health Board Director of Congressional Relations Shervin Aazami said many of the organization's priorities were included in the most recent bill after the group requested $2.5 billion for Indian health, and said NIHB will continue to push for its priorities to be included in future bills related to the pandemic.

National Indian Gaming Association Executive Director Jason Giles said his organization is focused on how to structure programs to meet the criteria for the $8 billion fund: that the money cover "necessary expenditures" for COVID-19 response that weren't included in the tribes' current funding and are incurred between March 1 and Dec. 30 of this year.

Giles said NIGA is now using the Tribal General Welfare Exclusion Act and related IRS opinions as a model for defining essential government functions that would qualify for the new funding.

--Additional reporting by Stephen Cooper. Editing by Stephen Berg.

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