Government , Candidates

First group in Congressional Debates discuss funding priorities and Separation of Powers

SKIATOOK, Okla. – Fifteen candidates answered questions from the Osage community at the Osage News Congressional Debates at the Osage Casinos-Skiatook on April 30.

The candidates were separated into three groups of five. The first group, made up of Myron Red Eagle, Maria Whitehorn, RJ Walker, Fi Davis, and Rebekah HorseChief, answered questions pertaining to constituent services centers, the Nation’s permanent fund, Separation of Powers, funding priorities and the Open Records law.

The Tulsa League of Women Voters (TLWV) moderated the event. Eighteen questions were submitted to the Osage News from the community. Those questions were placed in a hopper and selected at random by TLWV staff.

Each candidate was given two minutes for opening remarks, three minutes to answer each question, one minute for a rebuttal or additional comments and two minutes for a closing statement.

Opening statements

Red Eagle spoke of change, his education from Wesleyan University, work history in business and serving on the Second Osage Minerals Council.

“You can’t have progress without change,” Red Eagle said. “This Congress has violated the present Constitution, do we need four more years of that, that’s what the voters will decide. We need change.”

Whitehorn is currently the Speaker of the Congress and she believes the Nation needs to find a balance in its operations.

“This government we’ve set ourselves up in, we need to find a balance in the services we offer to the people. The government we have on top of the hill, how much that costs, that’s what I’ve been looking into,” Whitehorn said. “How are we going to best serve everyone here.”

Walker is seeking re-election and said he is known as someone who communicates well with his fellow Congress members and the Executive Branch.

“Politics and business doesn’t mix and when I see that I tell my colleagues to back our of their business,” Walker said. “That includes the Minerals Council.”

Davis said he has been an Osage Nation employee for 27 years and the director of the Food Distribution program for 22 years.

“One of the greatest platforms I can put forward today, we provide a nutritious food package to all low income households throughout the reservation,” Davis said. “Our health problems we have in our nation are rampant. Diabetes is … too high.”

HorseChief addressed the crowd in the Osage language, having been an Osage language instructor. She said she plans on introducing legislation for direct services that also generate income for the Nation.

“I plan to introduce legislation for children’s services, a funeral home, an assisted living and dialysis center,” she said. 

First question

Would you be in favor of financially supporting Constituent Service Centers in all our major communities? Why or why not? Submitted by Joe Conner.

Whitehorn said she felt the Constituent Services department is available to constituents by phone, email, and she believes the nation communicates with outside community members. She didn’t think it would be economically viable to put in constituent services in Hominy, Fairfax, Skiatook when technology allows people to communicate electronically.

“I support helping all Osages,” Whitehorn said. “For right now our [Constituent Services] department we have currently is serving the needs of the Osage people.”

Walker said he would have to say no to Constituent Service centers, the nation could utilize its finances in other areas. He said the Constituent Services office has a 24-hour hotline, they’re available by email, phone.

“I would be willing to listen to a well laid out plan, but off the cuff, no,” Walker said.

Davis said he would consider constituent services centers in all the major communities and the nation needed to branch out.

“I really would consider constituent services in each of our communities. I think it’s needed for people to be able to talk to somebody without having to talk on the phone,” Davis said. “And if you had further questions you have to drive to Pawhuska. I really think we would have a good time if we had constituent service centers in other areas.”

HorseChief said she would be willing to look into having more constituent service centers if someone presented a well laid out plan. She said if there were more centers the Congress would appropriate the money and the executive branch would execute the plan.

“I would be interested in seeing that as a plan, initially,” HorseChief said.

Red Eagle said there are many Osages living outside of the reservation that don’t feel like they are included or a part of the Nation. He could see a services center in California.

“It would be economically feasible in the long run, but there would need to be a plan,” Red Eagle said.

Rebuttal

Whitehorn said there are already other departments that travel outside of the nation’s reservation boundaries in delivering goods and services.

Walker said as a legislator the Congress has already been saying no to programs for elders and he would have to say no right now.

Davis said a services center could be located in existing community services centers in each community and he thinks it’s doable.

HorseChief said at issue is transportation for Osage citizens to the Osage community centers that already exist and believes the nation can already provide that transportation.

Red Eagle said he would like to study the Osage populations in other areas and would like to make a map for study.

Second question

The Osage Nation receives a $40 million distribution from gaming revenue to operate the Nation’s programs and services for the Osage people. If elected do you believe it is financially wise to ONLY appropriate within that distribution OR would you be an advocate for appropriating the distribution and also getting into the $30 million permanent fund? Submitted by Osage Congresswoman Alice Buffalohead.

Walker said he would do his best to maintain the $40 million distribution from the Osage Casinos. He said the past 2-3 years the nation has received additional distributions. He said they’ve been very conservative with appropriations, especially with the Casinos keeping $20 million for renovations. He said getting into the permanent fund was not an option, unless there was a catastrophic event such as a tornado tearing down a casino.

“I think we need to continue with the $40 million, it serves us well and we meet a lot of needs,” he said.

Davis said he believes the Congress has done a good job with the $40 million in appropriations each year. He said he would not be in favor of spending the permanent fund. He said with the recent land purchase of the Bluestem Ranch the nation needs to be conservative in spending.

HorseChief said she is “absolutely not in favor” of tapping into the permanent fund. She said the nation has 20,000 citizens and funding scholarships, health benefit cards, it would be okay to figure out the nation’s priorities. She said the money the nation currently has could also be invested in a funeral home, an assisted living facility, entities that provide services to the people but would also make a profit.

“We’re providing pathways for people to come home,” HorseChief said.

Red Eagle said he was not in favor of tapping into the permanent fund. He proposed keeping one percent of the money funded for scholarships to go for children’s programs.

Whitehorn said she is not in favor of getting into the permanent fund. She said the permanent fund was set up with $30 million and the interest made off of the fund goes into the nation’s treasury and not back into the fund. She said the nation has taken on the largest debt in its history with the purchase of the Bluestem Ranch and the Tulsa casino expansion. She said it is more important now than ever to hold appropriations to $40 million a year.

Rebuttal

Walker said the revenue projection established for next year was about $47 million. He said the permanent fund came about because the Congress was over appropriating $7 million to $8 million each year and one year it reached $50 million.

Davis reiterated the permanent fund is for emergencies only.

HorseChief said she would focus on drafting cost effective legislation and make better decisions about where appropriations should go.

Whitehorn said the Congress has never appropriated out of the permanent fund and she put $2 million aside during the Hun-Kah Session, strictly for economic development.

Third question

Article V of the Osage Constitution provides for a three-branch government-legislative, executive and judicial. The respective powers of each branch are set out in Articles VI, VII and VIII respectively; and while each branch has a separate function, the most primary responsibility is to work on behalf of the Osage people. What initiatives will you undertake to insure communication and cooperation with the executive branch in order for the Nation to pursue a shared vision and avoid violations of the separation of powers clause? Submitted by Marsha Harlan.

Davis said he has spent 27 years working under different administrations and with each administration he had a special working relationship.

“Most of the people in [Executive] have a job to do, something to execute. That is why they ran for the office, we want to write legislation to provide better services,” Davis said. “They run for office so they can do what they are elected for. We are in our office we are elected for so those separations can serve our people better.”

HorseChief said she loves the nation’s government, the federal legal system and the fact that we have a tripartite government. She supports Chief Standing Bear and she has always supported the Congress, she said. The recent Supreme Court opinion laid out the powers of each branch and she respects the court’s opinion, she said.  

“We work on behalf of constituents, I want to sit down with everybody,” she said.

Red Eagle said each branch has its duties and responsibilities.

“This latest lawsuit that came out from the Chief and was directed at Congress, pointed out they were micromanaging, trying to determine who got a raise, how much, that’s not the responsibility of the Congress,” Red Eagle said. “They got out of hand with that and changes have to be made … I believe the lawsuit was necessary and it had to happen.”

Whitehorn said her initiatives moving forward are to improve communication between the branches. She said Congress hit a snag with the last Supreme Court opinion. She said Congress never received information from the Executive Branch and since it’s not required by law for the Executive to provide information Congress needs to make appropriations she is looking into the Treasury Act and the Merit Pay for Performance Act to require better reporting. She said salaries are the number one expenditure for the nation.

Walker said he’s had a hard time watching his colleagues over the past couple of years, “crossing the lines” and “reaching over into separation of powers.” He said he is thinking of repealing the Budget Parameters Act, which the Attorney General recently wrote is unconstitutional. He said he respects Separation of Powers and is willing to listen to the Executive Branch representatives in committee meetings and willing to reach compromises when there are disputes.

“I will respect the rulings of the Supreme Court,” he said.

Rebuttal

Davis said he would write legislation that is constitutionally correct.

HorseChief: “I respect all rulings of our courts, and I will research, reach out and be informed with legislation I write because that’s what good legislators do.”

Red Eagle: “Unity is something that has to be achieved in order for progress to be done. I believe in people with new ideas, change, if the same people are elected then we might end up with the same results.”

Whitehorn said she believes in unity but communication has to flow between branches and there has to be agreement from both sides.

Fourth question

If you only had $1 million and had to choose between funding either the health card or the villages flooding problem solutions, which would you choose and why? Submitted by Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear.

HorseChief said Osages living outside the reservation and Osages living at home are equally important. She said when she visits out-of-state Osages they always ask her about home and everyone wants to make sure home is taken care of.

“I have expectations when I come back here, if we can’t take care of home then we can’t take care of our communities outside of here,” she said.

Red Eagle said a million dollars is not very much money. If he had to choose he would choose the issue with the most need. If people needed money for the health card then he would choose the health card.

Whitehorn said her job as a legislator is to solve problems, look for answers. She said as a sovereign nation there is the ability to look for other resources to fix the infrastructure of the villages. The health card is the same, there are resources to help fund the health card.

“I’m going to say we have resources available to help both, we’re a sovereign nation and we have the ability to do that,” she said. “I serve all people in all areas.”

Walker said his choice would be the health card because it serves 20,000 Osages. He said there are federal roads funds that can be directed to help the villages’ flooding problem.

Davis said he would fund the health card. He said a million dollars to fix the flooding problems would be nice too. He said when he was Wenoshe (Whip Man) for the Hominy District, he remembers having to walk from camp to camp to let everyone know they wouldn’t be dancing one year, due to the flooding.

Rebuttal

HorseChief: “When I visit Osages this is what they talk about. This is what we take care of, in our Constitution, first and foremost is our culture, our dances.”

Red Eagle said wherever the most need is at the time, he would direct the funds there.

Whitehorn said the Congress appropriated money to fix the the arbor and flooding in Hominy this year and hopefully the Tribal Development and Land Acquisition was fixing the problem.

Walker said the Villages, culture and language are the most fun issues to discuss. But if he had to choose between the flooding in the villages or fund the health card, he would choose the health card.

Davis: “I am for the health card. I’ve used it, my family uses it, my mother who I lost this past year, she used it. I think a million for the health card would be great.”

Fifth question

Currently, the Osage Casinos do not have to adhere to the Nation’s Open Records Laws. Would you support legislation to open the books of the Osage Casinos to the people? Submitted by Shannon Shaw Duty.

Red Eagle said he is for transparency and the Osage people need to know how much the casinos make. He said he’s visited with casino managers, he has a business degree, and open records and transparency go hand in hand. He said a study would need to be done on opening the casinos up to the open records law, a long range plan would need to be made.

Whitehorn said she would open up the casinos to the open records law but on a limited basis. She said maybe the gaming reform act could have language requiring some reporting to the public, but to include the casinos cart blanche to the open records law – she was not supportive of that.

Walker said he wouldn’t open the casinos up to the open records law completely. He said he agrees with transparency but the casinos are a business and he did not agree with opening the books of the casinos with their competitors so they could see what they’re doing.

Davis said he does not think the casinos should be subject to the open records act. He didn’t think it would benefit the government and legislation at all. “I wouldn’t be in favor.”

HorseChief said she would need to ask what all would be involved in that process. She said she would like to know what it would legally entail and that it could be on a limited basis.

“What is the public going to see, the Congress - however I am in favor, with a good business plan, but there is a reason that businesses keep things being behind closed doors,” she said.

Rebuttal

Red Eagle said when the balance sheets are made public and somebody wants the report is what it comes down to. He said it’s easy to see a profit and loss statement of any company.

“I don’t believe it would hurt opening up. Now executive sessions, when they have exec sessions we would have to leave. When it comes to decisions, important decisions, when it comes to open records act I would still be in favor of that,” he said.

Whitehorn recognized the chair of the Gaming Enterprise Board in the audience and said the board understands the money they make serves the Osage people and benefits everyone in the room. “To move forward they would need to be involved.”

Walker said the casinos had a record year last year and were on their way to another one.

“Transparency in our business can only go so far in my opinion. We get to see all of the information and make the important decisions, and that’s what we were elected to do. So no, not completely,” he said.

Davis said if you allow a little of the casinos operations to be subject to the open records act then it wouldn’t be too long before it was all subject to open records. He said that shouldn’t be allowed.

HorseChief said it wasn’t a popular conversation and the last time this conversation was had it was about losing $17 million to the Osage LLC business operation and that there was no transparency in their business dealings.

“So when we’re not taking the temperature of where the finances are going, then we lose, we lose $17 million,” she said. “We need to be able to feasibly, legally, look into our businesses,” she said.

Closing remarks

Whitehorn said there is a distinct separation of powers but if the nation’s branches aren’t working together to find a balance then they wouldn’t be able to serve the people.

“If I am allowed to continue my work on Congress, it’s … looking at what we need to do to be able to start rebuilding, making our structure stronger. It’s all about balance, good communication, it goes both ways,” she said. “I have worked hard since I’ve been on Congress. I love my job; I have no special interest group that supports me. I have no tie or owe anybody up there. I’ve worked for you so that we get better and better every time.”

Walker said he is an active member of Congress, he pays attention to all the meetings, his attendance record is at 99 percent. “I’m not afraid to make tough decisions … I would appreciate your vote.”

Davis said he is on the board of education for the Hominy Public Schools and when Chief Standing Bear ran for office his platform included a school for Osages. He said he is on board with that plan.

“I want to see a school and our culture advanced,” he said.

HorseChief said she is going to Ah.Wah.Shkon (Do her best) to use her education to actively, physically and spiritually do her best for the Osage Congress. She said to Za.Ni Wa.Li Combra (Keep respect first in your life) and she believes that respect should be in the Congressional chambers.

Red Eagle said the nation needs to branch out in its businesses, take lessons from other tribes who have had successes.

“We need for the younger people to vote. We all have children, grandchild, great grandchildren and I would like to make for that request,” Red Eagle said.

To watch the 2016 Osage News Congressional Debates, visit the Osage Nation’s YouTube page at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OY1ut74501A