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Congress votes down bill to eliminate cash in lieu of health insurance for elected officials

Elected officials have the option to opt-out of the Nation's health insurance and receive an $8,000 stipend instead. Something that Congresswoman Alice Goodfox said was unfair to the employees of the Nation, who do not have the option to receive a stipend.

An initially-passed-then-vetoed bill seeking to eliminate the option for Osage Nation elected offices to receive cash in lieu of health insurance benefits offered to those elected officers ultimately failed during the 2022 Tzi Sho Session after an Eighth ON Congressional veto override vote was unsuccessful.

The bill, ONCA 22-73 (sponsored by Congressional Speaker Alice Goodfox), sought to change the definition of benefits in Osage law and would eliminate Congress members’ and elected Executive Branch officials’ option to receive a retirement benefit worth 7.63% of their salary, according to a fiscal analysis prepared by the Congressional office. It would also eliminate the option to receive cash in lieu of health insurance that is offered to the 14 elected officials.

During a Congressional Government Operations committee meeting, Goodfox recalled Osage law being changed by the Second ON Congress to allow elected officials to receive insurance benefits while the Executive Branch officials already received the benefits. “A lot of members at that time were retirees and they were utilizing their insurance they had as retirees and there were a few of us that didn’t have insurance and just utilized Indian Health Service or utilized our spouse’s insurance. And so, a decision was made, and Congress voted to change that to allow for members of Congress as elected officials to also receive insurance and how it was written was that it would be a benefit that one could also take or it could be a benefit that you could get the cash for,” she said.

“I never agreed with that, the whole point of a benefit is to take the benefit,” Goodfox continued. “I see taking the cash equivalent as a perk … And so, this bill would not allow for our elected officials to do that. If you want to take the insurance, you get the insurance and if you choose not to participate, then you choose not to participate, but that doesn’t mean that you get the money in lieu of.”

Congressman Scott BigHorse, who was Assistant Principal Chief at the time, recalled earlier discussions on the benefits for elected officials. “I called the Social Security Office in Oklahoma City, I invited them up to the Congressional Chambers and we sat down with Congress members and they told us at that time that there was a federal ruling that Tribal Council members, or Congress members, were not allowed to participate in Social Security, so that’s where I got cross ways with a few of the Congress members because they were wanting money in lieu of the FICA and they didn’t get it while I was in there, but as soon as I left, I know that there was a stipend, a perk, whatever you want to call it, it was a pay raise and I was totally against it because it required a match from our general fund and that is monies that is taken out of our direct services pocket … Now the ruling has changed – the Feds are allowing Native American council/ Congress members to participate in Social Security – I’m for that, I was not for Congress giving themselves a pay increase basically,” BigHorse said.

Congresswoman Whitney Red Corn said she is concerned if the monetary equivalent for health benefits is eliminated then there is an issue of “unequal balance of benefits given to members. So, if I choose to not to have the insurance then I’m out that benefit, just the benefit amount, so I’m getting paid less essentially than someone who chooses the insurance because they are getting a financial benefit that I am not. If we get rid of the cash equivalent, then I would be receiving less benefits than my colleagues,” she said.

Goodfox said she discussed the intent of the bill with other Congress members who were interested in filing it if she didn’t as sponsor. “You either want it and take it or you don’t, that was (another member’s assessment of it in a conversation), the whole point is we wanted members of Congress to have insurance just like the Chief, Assistant Chief, we wanted that for our Judicial, we wanted it for our elected officials of Congress. And so, if someone didn’t want it because they already had insurance or they chose not to have any insurance, I don’t have the answer to that. The primary focus when we went this route was to make sure that all people in this (legislative) body had access to health care,” she said.

Congresswoman Brandy Lemon said she chose to take the cash in lieu of the health insurance offered by the Nation and uses it to pay for her family’s health insurance provided by another company. She added she’s worked for past entities where cash in lieu of work-offered health insurance was available and can be beneficial for workers to seek outside health insurance that covers more costs than that offered by the workplace’s insurance.

Before the bill’s vote, Goodfox noted there is no requirement for elected officials to buy outside health insurance if they chose to take the cash equivalent by not using the Nation’s health insurance. “We have employees that make roughly $30,000 a year and they might love to have that extra $8,000, meanwhile we have people that make over $100,000 a year that are able to take that extra $8,000. I just don’t agree with it at all and that’s why I put this back for a vote,” she said.

The bill initially passed with a 7-4 vote on Sept 20. “Yes” votes came from Congress members Billy Keene, Lemon, Shaw, Paula Stabler, BigHorse, Otto Hamilton and Goodfox. “No” votes came from John Maker, Eli Potts, Red Corn and Joe Tillman. Congresswoman Jodie Revard was absent that day.

Standing Bear vetoes ONCA 22-73

In a message received by Congress on Sept. 26, Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear vetoed ONCA 22-73 arguing the bill violates the Separation of Powers doctrine between the government branches.

“This bill is an attempt by the Osage Nation Congress to control benefits within the Executive Branch. This is a violation of the Separation of Powers doctrine,” he wrote. “Just as the Principal Chief cannot regulate, manage or command benefits within the Osage Congress or the Osage Judicial (branch), neither may the Osage Nation Congress regulate, manage or command benefits of the Executive Branch. To allow the branches to control the personnel actions can easily be a tool for misuse of power. The Osage Nation Supreme Court has long ago decided that such actions are against the Constitution of the Osage Nation.”

On Oct. 3, the final day of the Tzi Sho Session, the Congress voted to override Standing Bear’s veto but came up short.

Before the override vote, Potts said a possible solution and future bill he plans to author is to allow the cash in lieu of health insurance to be available to all Nation employees “so they have the choice to make the best decision for their families and I hope we can get around supporting that.”

Goodfox said she would continue working on possible Osage law amendments on the benefits issue if the veto override failed.

“Yes” votes to override came from Keene, Lemon, Revard, Shaw, Stabler, BigHorse and Goodfox. “No” votes came from Hamilton, Maker, Potts, Red Corn and Tillman. The override vote failed to receive three-fourths (nine members) of the Congress supporting an override as required by the Osage Constitution.

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Benny Polaccahttps://osagenews.org
Benny Polacca started at the Osage News in 2009 as a reporter and has covered various stories and events impacting the Osage Nation and Osage people. Polacca is part of the News team awarded the Native American Journalist Association’s Elias Boudinot Free Press Award in 2014 and other NAJA Media Awards and SPJ Oklahoma Pro Chapter awards for news coverage and photography. Polacca is an Arizona State University graduate and participated in the former American Indian Journalism Institute at the University of South Dakota. He previously worked at The Forum newspaper covering the Fargo, N.D. region as the weeknight reporter.
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