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White House dragged feet on vital aid for tribes

Last week, the U.S. Treasury Department announced it was distributing $4.8 billion of the $8 billion Congress allocated to tribal governments for a Coronavirus Relief Fund. While getting this money out the door is a good thing, this announcement comes weeks past the deadline and billions of dollars short. It is the definition of too little, too late – while Indian Country, which is on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis, cannot afford to wait for federal resources.

When Congress negotiated the CARES Act, I fought hard as the vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to make sure tribes were included. We secured $10 billion – $8 billion in direct relief to tribal governments and $2 billion for emergency funding for programs that serve Native communities. While this may only scratch the surface of what tribes need, it is far more than what the Trump administration and Senate Republican leadership proposed.

After objecting to dedicated tribal relief in the CARES Act, the Trump administration dragged its feet and took six weeks to release just some of what Congress intended. Unfortunately, this is just part of a long pattern of this administration failing to uphold its responsibilities to tribes.

Tribal governments and Native communities in New Mexico and across the country have stepped up to protect their communities. Even in the face of decades of health care underfunding and understaffing, tribes are doing everything they can to slow the spread of coronavirus. The full $8 billion relief fund – and not a dollar less – should have been distributed by now.

Sadly, we don’t have to look far to see the disproportionate toll the COVID-19 pandemic is taking on Indian Country. Over half of New Mexico’s confirmed COVID-19 cases are Native Americans, even though Native Americans are only about 10% of our state’s population. The Navajo Nation is facing a terrible outbreak.

I’m hearing from Native health providers across the country whose facilities are on the brink – shortages of personal protective equipment, funding and staff are mounting. This is unacceptable.

Tribes have been fighting for adequate resources for decades, and Indian Country is confronting this pandemic while bearing the weight of historic funding gaps for health care, infrastructure and economic resources. Per capita spending on Native health care is less than one-half the national average. Past public health crises caused disproportionately high mortality rates for Native Americans. We must do better.

So, it is especially egregious the Trump administration has done even more to exclude tribes from accessing critical resources. While negotiating the CARES Act, I fought to include tribally owned businesses in small-business loan funding. Instead, the Trump administration issued limits effectively prohibiting gaming enterprises – which employ thousands of people nationwide and fund tribal community services like public safety and elder care – from applying for these loans. Treasury eased its limitations after pressure from my colleagues and I in Congress, but the funds ran out before tribes could apply, once again leaving them behind.

This is just one of many instances where federal agencies threw up roadblocks, forcing tribes to navigate unnecessary bureaucracy for vital funding.

Now that the Senate has returned to Washington, I am working hard to get tribes the full resources they need in Congress’ next coronavirus response. I am listening closely to tribal leaders and am focusing on fully funding the pandemic response in Indian Country, expanding housing and sanitation funds and connecting tribal households to broadband internet.

Hopefully, the Trump administration and Senate Republican leadership have come to appreciate that these resources are urgent for Native communities, and it will not be so difficult to secure needed relief for Indian Country next time. In the meantime, Treasury must immediately release the rest of the $8 billion CARES Act funding, and the Trump administration must demonstrate it has learned how to better serve Indian Country.

Above all, the federal government’s trust responsibilities to tribes demand that we closely consult with tribes so we have a firm understanding of their unique needs. The next relief package must meet those fully.

This is not a matter of choice for the federal government. We are bound by our legal and moral obligations to serve American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians – who were here long before us, and who we must support when a crisis of global proportions reaches their doorstep.

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