Community , Government

Congressional special session scheduled Nov. 17 to consider funding Wakon Iron building, chapel projects

Photo caption: Chief Standing Bear would like a recent distribution from the Osage Casinos to fund the construction of a new Wakon Iron Community Building and Chapel for the Pawhuska District. Osage News File Photo

Thanks to a last-minute distribution of $20.4 million to the Osage Nation government from the Nation’s Gaming Enterprise at the close of the 2020 fiscal year, a Congressional discussion and consideration on funding a new Wakon Iron Community Building and chapel will be revisited in a Nov. 17 special session.

Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear issued an Oct. 23 executive proclamation calling for the Seventh ON Congress to meet for the third special session starting at 10 a.m. that day. Per the Osage Constitution, special sessions may last up to 10 days and can be extended three additional days as granted by the Speaker with the written approval of two-thirds of the Congress.

Listed on the proclamation is the following subjects to consider: An appropriation from the Retained Revenue Fund; Appropriation for Wakon Iron Chapel in Pawhuska Indian Village; Appropriation for Wakon Iron Community Building; Approval of Osage Nation Investment Policy; and Appropriation for mechanical repair at Visitors Center Building.

On Oct. 20, Standing Bear wrote to Congressional Speaker Angela Pratt requesting a special session to consider the use of the $20.4 million, which is in the Nation’s Retained Revenue Fund.

“To consider this proposal, I am suggesting a Special Session could be held in mid-November. Architect and engineering plans for the new Wakon Iron Chapel and the new Wakon Iron Community Building were ready for presentation to the Osage Congress for funding this recent Session. The projects were not funded. Funding concerns were relieved when the Osage Casinos sent to the Treasury ($20.4 million on Sept. 30 and remained there when FY 2021 started the next day) … Thus, by-laws enacted by the Osage Congress, the $20 million automatically became tribal funds deposited in the Retained Revenue Fund,” he wrote.

Revisiting plans for the new Wakon Iron Community Building and chapel come after the Congress adjourned its 2020 Tzi-Zho Session on Oct. 2 after passing the FY 2021 budgets for the government’s three branches, entities and departments/ programs. On Sept. 30 – the final day of the Nation’s FY 2020 – ON Gaming Enterprise Board Chairman Mark Simms issued a letter notifying the Congress that $20.4 million in a “true-up distribution” would be issued to the government helping to make up the monthly distribution losses incurred due to the two-month closure of all seven Osage Casino properties as the COVID-19 pandemic started spreading in Oklahoma in March 2020.

“It is the intention of the Osage Nation Gaming Enterprise to true-up distributions that were placed on hold during the pandemic shutdown of gaming operations in the amount of $20,415,043.30,” Simms wrote. “While our operations have been able to bounce back, we remain cautious as we enter the next fiscal year. We must remain cautious as cases of COVID-19 continue to increase in our area and leading health experts warn that flu season may perpetuate the health crisis.”  

Due to the two-month casino closures, Standing Bear told the Congress the loss in monthly gaming distribution payments to the government totaled $16 million at the start of the Tzi-Zho Session on Sept. 8. In budgeting for FY 2021, Congress set the projected revenue at $50.7 million (ONCR 20-24 sponsored by Congresswoman Jodie Revard) expected to come from tribal revenue with the majority coming from gaming. Per the Constitution, Congress shall enact, by law, an annual expenditure of funds, which shall include an appropriation of operating funds for each branch of government for the fiscal year and the annual budget shall not exceed projected revenues.

When the Tzi-Zho Session ended on Oct. 2, Congressional Speaker Angela Pratt issued an end-of-session report, which noted a total of 45 pieces of legislation were filed (10 resolutions and 35 bills); 54 Congressional committee meetings were scheduled during the session, and a total of $76.3 million in budget and appropriation requests were submitted to Congress.

After consideration and after the FY 2021 budget/ appropriation bills were passed, Pratt said a total of $48,814,138 in appropriating tribal funds – excluding the Wakon Iron building and chapel projects – were approved. That left $1,904,062 remaining available for appropriation in the rest of FY 2021, she said.

With the additional $20.4 million available for appropriation – subject to approval by Congress – Standing Bear proposed three possible uses in appropriating the money, which includes replenishing the Nation’s Permanent Fund that was tapped into for government operations while the casinos were closed and no gaming revenue was coming in and to fund both new Wakon Iron building and chapel projects.

In his letter, Standing Bear proposed $5.5 million or an updated figure provided by the Treasurer be appropriated to reimburse the Permanent Fund “for the money used during this COVID pandemic.” In April during the Hun-Kah Session, the Sixth ON Congress passed bill ONCA 20-34 (sponsored by Congressman Joe Tillman) that appropriated $8.1 million from the $30 million Permanent Fund in an unprecedented move to keep ON government operations and services running. Two separate bills (ONCA 20-26 and 20-27 both sponsored by Congresswoman Brandy Lemon) totaling $2.2 million were also passed during the session to make tribal funding available during that time of uncertainty.

For the Wakon Iron Community Building and chapel projects, Standing Bear proposed funding both, which have a combined estimated cost of $7.4 million. “This is an estimate and a better number will be known after construction bids are received. In that regard, I am directing bid notices be issued for these projects as soon as the (ON) Procurement Officer can prepare the documents,” Standing Bear wrote. “There is urgency in that further delay until after the 2020 audit is completed will push back the completion time for the Wakon Iron (building and chapel). The Community Building would not be completed until 2023 unless we move forward at this time.”

For more information on the ON Congress, filed legislation and to view a calendar of scheduled session and committee meeting, visit online: https://www.osagenation-nsn.gov/who-we-are/legislative-branch