The ninth Osage Nation Congressional special session convened Dec. 9 with the Congress passing bills to reduce spending in the Nation’s governmental operation budgets. Chief Standing Bear plans to veto the bills.
“First of all, people have to understand these budget issues on salaries does not affect Congress staff, the judicial staff or the Office of the Chiefs staff, these budget salary cuts are all the divisions and programs,” Standing Bear said. “The second reason is those budgets are part of the lawsuit we asked the [Osage Nation] Supreme Court to look at. If the Supreme Court overturns the September action of the Congress we’re going to have to go back and unwind all this to restore any of the budget salary increases that would have taken place among the programs and divisions.”
The Ninth Special Session opened with budget concerns raised by Congresswoman Shannon Edwards and Congressman Ron Shaw who sponsored legislative bills to reduce tribal spending in the current 2016 fiscal year for government operations. By Dec. 10, Shaw withdrew his bill (ONCA 16-08) and the Congress moved to approve budget cuts proposed by Edwards who sponsored six legislative bills seeking the reductions in each of the Nation’s six government division budgets.
The Congress voted to cut the Nation’s FY 2016 budgets by more than $250,000 in the special session. The Congress voted to pass six bills (all sponsored by Edwards) seeking the spending cuts last week and those bills were sent to Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear’s office on Dec. 11.
Edwards told the Congress the budget reductions seek to cut proposed salary increases, which were part of the budget debate with the Executive Branch (which proposed the increases) during the Tzi-Zho Session in September. The salary increases are also at the heart of a declaratory judgment filed with the Osage Nation Supreme Court by Standing Bear against the Fourth Osage Nation Congress on Nov. 30.
During the 2015 Tzi-Zho session in September Edwards sponsored amendments to the six FY 2016 government division budget bills, mandating all ON employee salaries remain at the FY 2015 level. The budget reductions passed in the Tzi-Zho session but the tribal money budgeted for the salary raises was not reduced at the time.
Edwards cut the tribal money budgeted for the proposed salary raises in the special session.
“We implemented what we intended to do in September but didn’t have the information,” Edwards said. “We were given information by the Treasurer [on Nov. 3] as to the amount of raises that were proposed in each division and it amounted to over $264,000 in total.”
Standing Bear asked the ON Supreme Court in the declaratory judgment whether the Congress can cut proposed raises or salaries within the Executive Branch. In the 10-page petition, Geoffrey M. Standing Bear, Principal Chief of the Osage Nation v. Maria Whitehorn, Speaker of the Osage Nation Congress, Standing Bear said the Congress violated the Osage Constitution’s Separation of Powers when it delved into Executive Branch functions.
If the ON Supreme Court rules in Standing Bear’s favor, the reduction bills recently passed in the ninth special session could remove the ability to award employees the proposed raises.
“If Executive would have provided proposed raise numbers during session, Congress would have reduced the wages line in the bills as it is entitled to do and the paragraph about holding wages at their current levels would not have been necessary,” Edwards said. “Instead, they played hide the egg, and we now have a court action to pay for instead.”
“It’s not that we don’t think people deserve raises, it’s the system we set up has some major flaws in it,” she said.
The Chief’s Office has maintained it gave the Congress all the necessary information it needed for the Tzi-Zho Session, that it had a balanced budget and they did not hide pay increases.
Edwards said Human Resources director Scott Johnson explained some of the proposed raises to Congress during the Tzi-Zho session. She said one example included a redo of a job description that changed its market analysis to include a $90,000 salary swing and could pay an individual anywhere from $110,000 to $200,000 a year in salary. Another example was department directors proposing salary increases for employees who had obtained degrees or advanced degrees.
“We’re finding out our merit system needs more work. It’s just like the membership bill, now that we’ve worked with it we see that there are improvements that need to be made,” she said.
Standing Bear said Edwards was working off of a preliminary estimate provided by the Treasurer but since that time the numbers have changed.
“The number amounts are uncertain and there’s been a lot of discussion with the treasurer and attorney general on what those numbers might be if the Supreme Court upholds the salary freezes,” Standing Bear said. “So as of today we still don’t know exactly what that number would be, although Congresswoman Edwards believes she knows what that number is.”
Edwards said the reduction in spending was also to offset the tribal revenue numbers, which were low after the Tzi-Zho session.
“There is approximately $300,000 in unappropriated unrestricted tribal revenue according to the Legislative Budget Analyst,” she said.
According to the passed bills, the breakdown of the budget reductions are:
ONCA 16-10: Reduces the Land, Commerce and Public Safety Division budget by $3,558.
ONCA 16-11: Reduces the Health, Fitness and Wellness Division budget by $17,036.
ONCA 16-12: Reduces the Governmental Operations Division budget by $72,211.
ONCA 16-13: Reduces the Education and Early Childhood Services Division by $83,254.
ONCA 16-14: Reduces the Cultural Preservation, Arts, Heritage and Language Division budget by $51,279.
ONCA 16-15: Reduces the Child, Family and Senior Community Services Division budget by 23,235.
The six bills will be considered for veto overrides during the next Congressional session, which begins Friday, Dec. 18 at 8:30 a.m. For more information on the session and to listen to live streamed sessions, visit www.osagenation-nsn.gov
[This article was updated on Dec. 16 to reflect Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear's comments.]