Community , Government , Candidates

Osage News Debates: Third group discusses economic development, Daposka Ahnkodapi, COVID-19 impact and direct services

Photo caption: Top row, from left: Pam Shaw and Congressman Joe Tillman. Middle: Jim Trumbly. Bottom row, from left: Congressman RJ Walker and Congresswoman Maria Whitehorn. Osage News

With the global COVID-19 pandemic sidelining countless public gatherings and annual event functions, the 2020 Osage News Candidate Debates shifted online for the first time on April 25 with all 15 Congressional candidates participating.

The newspaper’s Editorial Board hosted the debates – now in its 10th election year – through videoconferencing with the candidates participating from their respective locations during the afternoon-long event held on a warm sunny Saturday in Osage County.

Editorial Board Vice Chairwoman Tara McLain Manthey welcomed the 15 Osages running for Congress in the June 1 General Election and shared moderating duties with Sterling Cosper (Muscogee Creek Nation), who is programs director for the Native American Journalists Association. In the debate format, the candidates were divided into three groups of five (by alphabetical order of last names) and each candidate answered five questions submitted by the Osage public with opportunities for rebuttals after candidates initially answered the questions.        

Candidates Pam Shaw, Joe Tillman, Jim Trumbly, RJ Walker and Maria Whitehorn participated in the third and final group. Manthey and Cosper posed the questions and moderated the order of candidate (two minute) responses and (one minute) rebuttals. Each candidate also received two minutes each for introductions and closing remarks.

The entire recording of the 2020 candidate debates is online at the “Osage News” YouTube channel for viewing.

First question

What other enterprises besides gaming do you think the Osage Nation can start businesses in and be successful in? - Daniel Thornton, Pawhuska.

Tillman, the current Congressional Speaker, said the Congress is now in its third year at the former First National Bank building across Main Street from Ree Drummond’s The Pioneer Woman Mercantile businesses and has seen countless crowds come through Pawhuska since the fall 2016 opening. “I’ve been sitting there for those three years and seen the thousands and thousands and thousands of people just walk by our building …  and we have done nothing, nothing, and the local economy is right there for us, all sorts of opportunities … I’m open to looking at different opportunities, you have to be careful, you have to have a plan to go forward cautiously, but please don’t just rely on gaming, we have some bright minds in the Osage Nation and let’s move forward,” Tillman said.

Trumbly said Drummond’s “15 minutes of fame is not going to last forever and we need to capitalize on that, there’s so many things we could be doing, we have to diversify our revenue stream … we need to do it smart, we need to develop a comprehensive business plan and the business models for each one of these... We started putting (Bird Creek Farm) on the road to being profitable in the fact that they’re going to start produce products for our casinos to use … Hemp is another one of the agri-businesses we need to look at … we need to change the way we do business in Osage,” he said.

Walker acknowledged Trumbly’s comments, adding he is privy to recent discussions on pursuing the hemp industry. “I think that’s a viable option and agri-tourism … We need to start looking at opportunities on the ability to be self-sustaining to feed our people in the next crisis,” Walker said.

Whitehorn said economic development at the Nation is the No. 1 important issue to her because the Nation and its people have needs, tribal funds are limited and local endeavors including the Nation’s Bluestem Ranch and Bird Creek Farm have some success. “I believe that Osages can be successful in any business that we put our minds to,” she said.

Shaw also agreed the Nation needs to diversify its economic development, because “I do support Native-to-Native businesses,” adding one challenge she ran into while working as a gaming CEO was difficulty in finding Native-owned companies to hire in providing the casino with goods and services.

Second question

Regarding the boards and LLCs of the Nation, what do you think is needed for them to become more transparent and accountable to the Osage Nation? - Faren Anderson, Pawhuska.

Trumbly said he’s written position papers on LLCs, adding “LLCs are not good or bad … It’s the people in positions that have to be transparent and held accountable … These boards need to produce an annual report – or I would say a quarterly report – that is made public not just to the government entities so the Osage Nation citizens can see it and the compensation for the boards needs to be tied to their performance as well.”

Walker noted the LLCs and LLC boards fall under the Executive Branch and believes the branch should “dedicate more efforts on having someone monitor what’s going on a little bit more” and added the Legislative Branch should also monitor the LLCs better as well.

Whitehorn said she attends board meetings for the Osage LLC, Osage Nation Environmental Solutions (ONES) and the Bluestem Ranch, adding “transparency starts with your elected officials … In my view, it’s also up to the Executive Branch to also do the same.”

Shaw said she sees transparency being an issue, adding it’s hard for constituents, including her, to find information on the LLCs. “When you look at the businesses that our LLCs are currently in – construction, IT, energy – they should be successful, right? My question, just as a tribal member on the outside looking in, is why? We need to be able to get that information even though it’s hard to deliver bad news,” she said.

Tillman noted the Executive Branch is charged with appointing the board members and the Congress votes to confirm them for service, but a better job can be done at vetting the boards. He also added that serving board members “have been handed a disaster” with millions in prior losses and poor business decisions by past management, “so I want us to be careful going forward.”

Third question

What is your stance on the future of Daposka Ahnkodapi – the Osage Nation’s school? - Avis Ballard, Skiatook.

Walker said the COVID-19 virus has changed the Nation’s money situation for funding government operations due to the Osage Casinos temporary shutdown and the questions are shifting to what can the Nation afford due to revenue shortfalls, adding “it’s heartwarming and humbling” to hear the students speak and say prayers in Osage.

Whitehorn agreed “we’re going to have money issues,” and she supports language immersion efforts. “If we don’t have plans in place as legislators then we can’t prioritize the dollars that we have … I want to be able to support it, but I’ve got to see where it’s going to take us, the dollars that it’s going to take us to be successful because we’re dealing with the young minds of children and families … but that is the choice of the Executive Branch and I hope to see what we’re going to do,” she said.

Shaw said she supports the school’s immersion efforts “and if we are able to sustain that option, I think that we should as part of our overall language program and language efforts.”

Tillman said the question gave him “mixed emotions,” noting he believes the staff is dedicated to their jobs in working with the students. He also noted the school experienced a high turnover rate with three people in leadership roles in recent years and the cost per student needs to be revisited, as well as planning… “my heart goes out to all the people who are working very hard to try and make that school a success,” he said.

Trumbly acknowledged there will be difficulties the Nation faces due to the COVID-19 situation, but “we do need to keep in mind that in order to be a federally recognized tribe, we have to have a solid language base, so I think that it’s really important just for us to keep our federally recognized status, so the school needs to work with the Nation’s government… to make sure they developed a modified strategic plan that will outline their goals and objectives.”

Fourth question

A decimating result of COVID 19 will be lost revenues from Gaming. Low estimates are in the 20% range, though the number could be much higher. When "normalcy" returns, and Casinos open, revenues will not return to form immediately. How will Congress address the revenue shortfalls, including priority spending? - Scott Manzer, Bakersfield, Calif.

Whitehorn said any cutbacks in the Executive Branch will be made by the branch itself. For the upcoming 2021 fiscal year, Whitehorn said a decrease in projected revenue is anticipated, but added: “A projection is a moving target. As your member of Congress, it would be my desire to have cuts equally across the board … I support benefits to the people and I support a strong government that serves our people with a workforce … But everything is going to be examined in my view.”

Shaw said she’s been listening to the 2020 Hun-Kah Session and committee meetings and spoke with Executive Branch members and commended the branches for their efforts so far. Using gaming experience, Shaw said she believes it could take one year for the Nation to recover from the lost revenue and each branch will have to look at their expenses to meet the lower revenue projections.

Tillman said it’s very difficult to predict what is coming due to the pandemic and business closures and a possibility of a second wave of COVID-19. He believes any cuts and sacrifices will have to start at the top … “Hard questions are coming, do the Big Three (direct services) go away? I hope not. When you look at burial assistance, scholarships, health benefit funds, are they going to be cut? Possibility it could be coming, I don’t want to get rid of any of them, but they may be reduced and it’s unfortunate because all our eggs have been in one basket and that’s gaming and our doors are closed.”

Trumbly said the question “goes to the underlying problem we have in how we do business. If the coronavirus – and I might add Gov. Stitt – have taught us anything, it’s that having a single source of revenue makes us vulnerable and it puts our entire Nation in jeopardy … We need to do a financial comprehensive financial analysis … we need to understand where we are, what the impact is going to be … It stresses the importance of business diversity.”

Walker also believes there will be budget cuts and “priority spending is going to depend on who sits in these (Congressional) seats … There’s probably going to be a smaller government, there’s likely going to be employees who no longer work for the Nation or if they get furloughed, they might not come back.”

Fifth question

Do you believe direct services should be given to Osages that do not reside in the historical boundaries described in the Constitution? - Harmony Revard-Fuller, Collinsville.

Shaw said the Nation has done a good job in providing direct services to Osages living outside the reservation, which is “admirable. Do I believe that we should? Yes Our Constitution says one member, one vote, then I think we need to do that, however I think that there are some services that are impossible to provide outside” of the boundaries.

Tillman referred to the Constitution, which he called “our bible and that’s what we base our decisions off of,” and said he believes it states: “if you’re Osage, we serve all of you.”

Trumbly noted he has experience “in both realms” when it comes to living in the Nation and away. He previously attended a Northern California Osage gathering and said: “I will tell you that most Osages living outside of Osage County have an attitude of what they really want is to be treated like Osages and not like second-class citizens and I think that our Constitution has done a good job of moving us in that direction.”

Walker answered: “Yes I do, I’ve proven that with dozens of votes supporting the health benefit card, our scholarships, burial assistance … If I lived out of state or even outside of Osage County and I had an opportunity to benefit with several thousands of dollars to send my children to school … I would be very appreciative, the burial assistance is an outstanding benefit, I hope we can continue to sustain those, we may not be able to for a year or two, but I hope that we can get back up to the levels that we are now.”

Whitehorn also said she supports direct services to Osages outside of the Nation, adding she took an oath of office “to uphold and defend this constitution and you are my constituency no matter where you live, my thought is always on that when I make my decisions.”

After the debate, Manthey thanked the candidates for their participation “and contributions, let’s all take a moment to send out thanks and gratitude to our families and partners that allowed us all to spend this time together, thank you for your patience as we adapted to this technology and we appreciate your dedication and your passion and your service to the Osage people. It has been a true delight to learn more about your views and ideas and especially in the really challenging times ahead and we appreciate you and know the voters have hard decisions to make.”