Navajo Council passes virus relief spending plan

A sign near Fort Defiance on the Navajo Nation warns about COVID-19. The Navajo Nation Council has passed a $651M spending plan to ease effects of the pandemic. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The Navajo Nation Council has passed a plan for spending nearly $651 million from the federal CARES Act to address effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the reservation.

The council approved the plan on July 31, following a three-day special session and several committee hearings.

“This was a collective effort that brought to the surface all the underlying, systemic challenges, like lack of running water and access to electricity, that are common throughout the Navajo Nation,” Council Speaker Seth Damon said in a statement Saturday.

Included in the bill is $130 million for water projects. At least 30% of homes on the Navajo Nation lack running water, according to a 2019 report by the U.S. Water Alliance and DigDeep.

More than $87 million would go to the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources for “waterline and cistern projects, water hauling, windmill repairs, water well infrastructure, earthen dam and irrigation project rehabilitation.” The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority would receive $39.5 million for water projects.

A To’hajiilee-Albuquerque water line would receive $2 million.

The plan outlines $44 million for powerlines and $68.2 million for broadband and telecommunications, including funding for Navajo Technical University and Diné College.

Solar-powered electricity projects would receive more than $69 million.

More than $75.8 million would be directed to the Navajo Department of Health, with an additional $9.6 million allocated to the Judicial Branch, and $60 million for Navajo businesses.

About $33 million would be spent on housing. Reservation leaders often cite overcrowded housing as a factor in the spread of COVID-19.

Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprises would receive $24.6 million under the plan. The tribe’s casinos have been closed since March.

The money comes with a year-end spending deadline. Distribution of pandemic relief funds to tribes was delayed for weeks because of a legal dispute with the U.S. Treasury Department.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez has 10 days to act on the plan once it is presented to his office. Many provisions in the council’s plan align with a spending proposal from the Office of the President. But Nez said during a video update Tuesday that for some proposed expenditures, “it’s hard to even justify that it’s for COVID-19.”

Nez said the reservation will begin to relax some public health orders, including shortening the weekend curfews.

The Navajo Nation will have a 32-hour weekend curfew starting Saturday at 9 p.m. and ending Monday at 5 a.m.

As of Monday, the Navajo Nation had reported a total of 9,139 COVID-19 cases and 462 deaths. More than 6,700 people have recovered.

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