Chief Justice letter changes tide on budget amendments

Tensions are rising during the Tzi-Zho Session as the pot of money the Osage Nation Congress has to work with has significantly dwindled. Compounding the problem is the uncertainty of how much gaming revenue the Nation will keep if Gov. Kevin Stitt has his way with raising exclusivity fees the tribes pay to the state.

The Tzi-Zho Session began on Sept. 3 and the Congress quickly funded over $20 million for the Health Benefit programs, the Higher Education Scholarship Fund and the Burial Assistance Fund in the early weeks of the session. Often called the “Big 3” for how much they cost, the remaining money left for the three branches of government to operate has put the Congress over projected revenue by about $1.2 million.

The six-member Appropriations Committee seemed to find a solution in cutting all proposed wage increases for the Nation’s employees, which drew the ire of the online Osage community.

Among those proposed budgets to be cut was the budget for the Judicial Branch. On Friday, Sept. 20, Supreme Court Chief Justice Meredith Drent sent a memorandum to the Speaker of the Osage Nation Congress Joe Tillman, all members of Congress, and copied Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear and Assistant Principal Chief Raymond Red Corn. The letter expressed her objections to the amendment made to the Judicial Branch’s budget by Congressman Eli Potts, who is the chair of the appropriations committee.

“The $50,468 reduction was proposed without consulting the Judicial Branch and was done without regard to the purpose of each item within the budget,” Drent wrote. “The manner in which this amendment was proposed is discourteous at best and dishonest at worst because it belies the ‘principles of transparency and accountability’ that are supposed to be cornerstones of Osage governance.”

Drent went on to write about the back and forth the Judicial Branch experienced with Potts and the committee and that the “arbitrary” proposed 10 percent cut would be detrimental to services provided by the ON Courts. She said the committee meeting she attended was an opportune time to discuss where the committee felt the cuts should be made.

“If we are going to be on the bottom of the list of projects worth funding, we should have an honest discussion about the level of service the Judicial Branch can provide,” she said. “We do not, however, believe that is the case because Congress keeps passing legislation that increases the types of cases to be heard in Osage court.”

She ended her letter asking for the Congress to reject Potts’ amendment of ONCA 19-83 and said the Judicial Branch would be happy to meet with the Congress about budget concerns.

The letter had a chilling effect. On Monday, Sept. 23, Drent’s letter was mentioned during the Congressional session by Congressman RJ Walker and one by one, members of Congress voted “no” to passing the amendment made to ONCA 19-83 as proposed by Potts. Only Potts and Congresswomen Maria Whitehorn and Shannon Edwards voted to pass the bill.

Both Whitehorn and Edwards stated the Appropriations Committee was “fair and equitable” to all budgets and that hard decisions were going to have to be made. According to Whitehorn, cutting all proposed wage increases for the 2020 fiscal year would put the Congress $800,000 under projected revenue.

The Congress still has yet to consider appropriations bills for building improvements, cultural donations, funding the Nation’s business entities, construction projects for community buildings for both the Pawhuska and Grayhorse districts, and others that cost anywhere from $20,000 to $500,000.

When Potts was contacted about Drent’s letter over the weekend, he wrote in an email Monday morning that he felt it was unfortunate that Drent had chosen to attack the Legislative Branch process in how it considers legislation.

He said his fellow Congress members approved of the amendment made to ONCA 19-83, that Congress had more than 24 hours to consider the amendment and nothing about the process violated the principles of transparency and accountability. He said similar amendments were made to all three branches of government, equally.

He said he felt “personally saddened” that Drent attacked his character and motives.

“As Chair of Appropriations, I am required to sponsor all operations bills and help ensure that spending does not exceed projected revenue,” he said. “My office is always open to anyone who has questions regarding legislation or amendments that I may propose. That includes the Chief Justice, who did not contact me to learn about the status of our appropriated revenue and the shortfalls which required this action.”

He invited all members of Congress to the next appropriations meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 24 from 1-7 p.m.