Community , Culture , Government

Congress again votes down efforts to fund new Pawhuska Village buildings, replenish permanent fund

After debate and discussion that mirrored the November special session, the Seventh Osage Nation Congress again voted down a bill during its Dec. 15 special session that would’ve provided immediate access to the last-minute $20.4 million provided by the Gaming Enterprise Board in September for three proposed bills.

Those appropriation bills requested tribal funding for construction projects in the Pawhuska Village for the proposed new Wakon Iron chapel and community building and also a proposed $5.5 million replenishment for the Osage Nation’s permanent fund, which was accessed in Spring 2020 for government operation expenditures due to the two-month shutdown of the Nation’s Osage Casinos after the COVID-19 pandemic reached Oklahoma.

With the $20.4 million deposit made on the last day of FY 2020, Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear told Congressional Speaker Angela Pratt in an Oct. 20 memo the money automatically became tribal funds to be deposited in the Nation’s Retained Revenue Fund. Discussion and debate on the $20.4 million’s status arose during the special session committee meetings. At issue is the Nation’s retained revenue law which states: “The Retained Revenue Fund shall be funded by the tribal funds unobligated from the previous fiscal year as reported by the Treasurer of the Osage Nation upon completion of the annual audit.”

Ongoing audits

Treasurer Jim Littleton informed the Congress the Nation’s 2019 audit was nearing completion in both sessions and work would begin afterward on the FY 2020 audit. With the audits not completed, some Congress members expressed concern on accessing the money via bill ONCA 21-08 (sponsored by Congresswoman Brandy Lemon) with the audits not completed.

Efforts to consider the three bills stalled in the November special session and again on Dec. 15 when the Congress voted down ONCA 21-08 with a 7-5 vote that sought to exempt the $20.4 million from the retained revenue law, which would’ve brought an opportunity to vote on the three appropriation bills.

According to ONCA 21-08, the bill acknowledges the “unique situation” for the Nation with the $20.4 million distribution available but with no immediate access for appropriations and therefore sought “a one-time exemption” from the retained revenue law to be declared available for appropriations.

Before the bill vote, Lemon said she sponsored the legislation as a proposed solution to the situation, which includes time-sensitive planning to build the long-sought Wakon Iron chapel and community building to replace the current two aging structures with wear and tear issues, as well as an opportunity to replenish the Permanent Fund.

Short timeline

Standing Bear told the Congress the timeline for building the two structures is sensitive because those projects are subject to the Nation’s bidding law to seek professional companies to build the new larger chapel and community building. Congresswoman Paula Stabler sponsored the two bills seeking appropriations for the projects with ONCA 21-09 requesting $5.9 million for the community building and ONCA 21-10 requesting $1.7 million for the chapel.  

In his executive message, Standing Bear told Congress he supported the village projects considering the Nation’s population has grown. He said the new chapel is slated to be built first before the community building when the bidding process is complete and contractors are selected.

“If we do not act now, our estimation is that the projects could not be finished, especially the community center, until the year 2023,” Standing Bear said. With regard to the debate on the retained revenue law, he said: “My response immediately went back to when I was Assistant Chief (under the former Osage government) … I was 37 years old and I looked at my older elected representatives and I was the only one from my generation that sat at those tables and I thought ‘the law needs to change’ so my generation and my children’s generation can participate in our Osage Nation government and just because I inherited a headright, that qualifies me to sit here – and as we’ve all said, I’d rather have my father back ... Every year after, I’ve said ‘when do we change the law and remove this obstacle? And how many of us today of our people would be members or would be eligible to hold office or even be on the Osage Congress if we did not change that law? So, I am all for changes in law that remove obstacles for the Osage people and to rely on those obstacles makes one an obstructionist, standing in the way of our future,” he said in his executive message.

Later during a Congressional Appropriations Committee to initially consider the special session legislation, Congressman Eli Potts restated he is not for Lemon’s legislation to change the retained revenue law and believes the two audits must be completed first.

Debate

Littleton and representatives from Albuquerque, N.M.-based REDW, the firm selected to conduct the Nation’s audits told the appropriations committee the audit work is still ongoing and said several obstacles caused the delays including incomplete accounting records that needed addressing first and employee absences and turnover in the Nation’s accounting department during the year which included COVID-19 pandemic-related disruptions. The firm representatives said the FY 2019 audit was on course for completion by Dec. 31 and work would commence on the FY 2020 audit. 

Congressman John Maker stated he is not against the Pawhuska Village projects but also believed “we need to go by the legal process” versus changing the law.

Stabler said she “hates this (village project appropriation legislation) has become a political football, we know these buildings are old” noting the community building has a roof leak during inclement weather, grass grows through floor cracks, water can also travel in through the vents and the issues will continue until new structures are built.

“This is an opportunity, we have amended many, many laws ... for the betterment of our Nation. Our cultural leaders have asked for one thing: Build our chapel first, we need a building for funeral services, namings,” Stabler said of the various building uses, which also include community meetings and other personal milestone events Osages partake in “whether you sit under that arbor or not.”

Congresswoman Jodie Revard, who sponsored ONCA 21-11 to replenish the permanent fund with $5.5 million, also chimed in the debate and said she spoke with Pawhuska District advisors on the issue and noted she was concerned with the project timing, that the economy probably may not recover from the COVID-19 impacts until 2023 and the “need does exist” for the buildings.

Congressman RJ Walker said he supports and understands the need for the Pawhuska Village buildings but added he is also concerned with the two incomplete audits, noting he too is an elected official and Congress has “the power of the purse,” before saying he would be voting “no” for the legislation.

Congressman Joe Tillman stated he is for the new Pawhuska Village projects but asked “is this fiscally responsible in how we’re going to spend the people’s money?” adding he is concerned if the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic prompts another closure of the seven Osage Casinos causing another revenue situation as was experienced in Spring 2020.

Congressman Billy Keene, who supported the Pawhuska Village legislation, said: “The Osage people elected us to sit in these seats, laws are not set in stone,” in referring to the debate whether to amend the retained revenue law.

The vote

After the final debate, the Congress voted down ONCA 21-08 with “no” votes from Congress members Maker, Scott BigHorse, Potts, Tillman and Walker. Voting “yes” were Revard, Pam Shaw, Stabler, Alice Goodfox, Keene, Lemon and Congressional Speaker Angela Pratt.

Afterward, Stabler and Revard made motions to withdraw their bills for the Pawhuska Village projects and $5.5 million permanent fund replenishment for further consideration.

For more information regarding ON Congressional regular or special sessions, filed legislation and Congressional committee meetings, visit the Legislative Branch website at www.osagenation-nsn.gov/who-we-are/legislative-branch