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Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez has approved the spending of more than $52 million in federal CARES Act funds to address COVID-19 on the reservation.
Nez, over the holiday weekend, also line-item vetoed $73 million in expenditures from two resolutions passed last month by the Navajo Nation Council. The Navajo government now has more than $662 million remaining.
“We don’t know what’s in front of us, (with) no vaccine, no cure for COVID-19,” Nez said during a video update Tuesday. “This money should be able to help empower our citizens as well as do some long-term changes to our nation’s infrastructure.”
As of Monday night, the reservation reported 7,914 COVID-19 cases and 378 deaths. The Navajo Nation has tested more than 59,000 people – almost 30% of the population – and 5,604 people have recovered.
“We have a great need to remain vigilant and keep ourselves and our families safe in this fight against COVID-19,” Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer said.
Approved expenditures include $21 million in special duty pay and $10 million for personal protective equipment for front-line workers. Other items include $10 million for food and water care packages, $2 million for telework equipment for government employees, $3.5 million for bathroom additions at chapter houses, $3 million for tribal health care facilities, and $2.5 million for an improved financial system to process the spending.
The reservation government’s first approval of CARES Act spending follows weeks of back-and-forth between President Nez and the Navajo Nation Council.
In a news release, Council Speaker Seth Damon criticized the line-item vetoes, adding that Nez was “legislating through the executive office.”
“As council delegates, we love our communities greatly, and it pains us to know that we are trying our hardest to meet President Nez in the middle, only to be met with vetoes,” Damon said in the release.
Nez said Tuesday that the line-item vetoes were necessary to “protect the people’s money” and align with federal guidelines.
The federal government has set a year-end spending deadline for CARES Act money. Navajo leaders have asked for an extension.
Items vetoed from the resolutions included $55 million for chapters, $10 million for the Navajo Judicial Branch, $7 million in burnout assistance for families and $1 million for the Diné HataaÅ‚ii Association to assist traditional practitioners in providing mental and spiritual guidance during the pandemic.
The three branches of Navajo government will now work together to create a spending plan for the remaining $662 million.
Nez said funding water infrastructure is a top priority.