Government , Legal

ON Congress passes Judicial, Legislative and some government division budgets

Several 2017 fiscal year budgets for Osage Nation government operations received approval from the Fifth Osage Nation Congress on Sept. 27.

In a session that recessed for already-scheduled Congressional committee meetings and ended at 8:45 p.m., the Congress considered budgets following three-plus weeks of discussion, debate and amendments.

The approved bills, along with other legislation awaiting Congressional votes, will be sent to Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear’s office for review and consideration of action.

The approved budgets come as the 2016 fiscal year ends Sept. 30 and amid a lawsuit now in the ON Trial Court. The Executive Branch filed a complaint regarding the Congressional subpoenas demanding salary, governmental operations and education division information during the first week of the Tzi-Zho Session.

Congressman RJ Walker said the Congressional Affairs committee met in executive session on Sept. 23 and 27 to discuss preparing budgets for litigation costs on the Congressional side.

According to the Trial Court, the Legislative Branch has until Oct. 11 to file a response to the complaint.

At issue in the court complaint and Congressional subpoenas is additional budget and operations-related information that Congress members say is used to help make informed decisions in the budget consideration process. The information requested is supporting documentation that has traditionally been given to the Congress in the past that lists employee salary amounts for each individual program or department, how many employees work there, the amount used for travel, professional fees for contractors, amounts for supplies, space cost and other operating expenses.

In the past, directors for these programs and departments would go before Congressional committees and answer any questions Congress members had about their budgets. This year, Standing Bear’s administration did not allow directors to attend Congressional committee meetings and instead sent appointed Executive Branch staff to answer any questions.

In a Sept. 9 email to all Osage employees, Chief of Staff Jason Zaun wrote that all communications with the Congress were now a legal matter and any communication, including production of documents, “must now be cleared through legal counsel” after Congresswoman Alice Buffalohead invited directors to the Governmental Operations Committee meetings to discuss their budgets. She wrote, “The Osage people listening in love to hear about how their Osage Nation dollars are being used to serve them by the very people who conduct the work day in and day out.”

Standing Bear said his administration “sought to protect the names of individual employees tied to what they receive as their salary or hourly wage.”

Over the years many past and present employees and directors have complained about the intense questioning from some members of Congress during committee meetings about their budgets and salaries.

The Executive Branch filed the complaint in ON Trial Court arguing the production of the subpoenaed information in 11 days would be an undue burden, and cited concerns of protecting privacy of employees and Osages who receive services as well.

Passed Legislation

Those budgets passing with Sept. 28 votes will be sent to Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear’s office for review and consideration of action. Those bills (sponsored by Congressman Ron Shaw, who currently chairs the Congressional appropriations committee) include:

ONCA 16-85: Judicial Branch budget for $524,086, which will be funded by both tribal and outside sources. According to a fiscal analysis, the Judicial Branch’s budget will be funded with $411,051 in tribal revenue and supplemented by $101,035 in federal funds and $12,000 in other revenue, which includes court fees. The Judicial Branch budget passed unanimously 12-0.

ONCA 16-87 is the Osage News operations budget and the budget is set at $535,146. The newspaper budget, which covers staff and office operations, newspaper website maintenance and printing/ mailing of the newspaper is funded 100 percent by tribal funds.

Congresswoman Alice Buffalohead, who chairs the Congressional governmental operations committee, acknowledged the Attorney General’s office, Judicial Branch and the newspaper for submitting the additional requested support documentation to the Congress as part of the budget consideration process. “It helped to shed light on their budget, provide transparency to the Osage people and I think the Osage people really appreciate that,” she said.

ONCA 16-88 is the Congressional/ Legislative Branch budget set at $2,445,930 and is also 100 percent tribally funded. The budget contains funding for Congressional member and employee salaries, office operations, as well as operational funding for the Office of Fiscal Performance and Review (OFPR). The Congressional budget passed 12-0.

ONCA 16-90: The budget for the Nation’s newly named Land, Commerce and Agricultural Division set at $8,070,729 passed 11-1 with one “no” vote from Congresswoman Shannon Edwards.

Congressman William “Kugee” Supernaw, who has been a sitting member of Congress since 2006, said he “didn’t feel good about this” and “this is the worse session I’ve ever attended” regarding the budget process without additional information to consider. “We did the best we could with what we had to work with,” Supernaw said.

ONCA 16-92: The budget for the Nation’s Health and Wellness Division is set at $13,947,612. The budget vote repeated with 11-1 with Edwards voting “no” again.

Edwards said she is voting “no” adding she heard complaints about the inaugural run of the Nation’s disability assistance program and hoped the program can be reassessed and improved “so what happened to the money is what’s supposed to happen to the money." The disability assistance program started in June after an initial $50,000 appropriation bill was approved in the spring Hun-Kah Session, but funding was depleted within 17 business days.” Edwards said Congress was told this year’s budget includes $150,000 to administer the disability assistance program in FY 2017.

Edwards said she would like to see the disability assistance program reassessed and revisited in committee and to add more conditions, if needed. “Without having any checks and balances in here… and for the reason I still cannot find anybody that can tell me what (employee) positions are contained within this budget, I’ll be voting ‘no,’” she said.

Congressman James Norris, a retired physician assistant, also noted the same issues with the disability assistance program. Norris said he spoke with an employee with the Financial Assistance Department, which administers the disability assistance program, and was told the criteria required a doctor’s note stating the disability. Norris said “in my experience with being disabled, generally you have to at least have a physical examination, get a doctor’s statement, Social Security requires you submit this to them for evaluation,” he said, adding he still believes it’s a good benefit program.

ONCA 16-93: The budget for the Education Division set at $6,837,757 and passed unanimously. Edwards, who chairs the Congressional education committee, said she will ask the Treasury Department to track numbers monthly regarding the direct assistance services offered by the Education Department. Edwards said the information helps the Congress to assess and gage how the money is being spent.

ONCA 16-95: The budget for the Nation’s Child, Family and Senior Services Division set at $4,154,438. The budget passed 11-1 with a lone “no” vote from Edwards.

ONCA 16-112 (sponsored by Buffalohead): An act to require all donations made on behalf of the Nation to be administered and awarded by the nonprofit Osage Nation Foundation. Buffalohead said political and cultural donations made on behalf of the Principal Chief’s office would be exempt from this new law.

According to the Internal Revenue Service, all 501c3 nonprofit organizations are prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in any political campaign activities and any violations may result in denial or revocation of a nonprofit’s tax-exempt status, as well as imposed certain excise taxes.

Buffalohead said she is also sponsoring a companion appropriation bill (ONCA 16-121) for $100,000 to be appropriated to the ON Foundation for donation use.

The Congress will continue consideration of the budgets and other legislative items with Day 20 of the Tzi-Zho Session starting at 5 p.m. Sept. 28.

To view filed legislation and the Congressional calendar for scheduled sessions and committee meetings, go online to: www.osagenation-nsn.gov/who-we-are/legislative-branch

The sessions and meetings are also live streamed at the following link: www.osagenation-nsn.gov/multimedia/live-media

 

With additional reporting by Editor Shannon Shaw Duty