Culture , Government

Congress votes down funding for new Pawhuska District buildings and permanent fund

Photo caption: The 7th Osage Nation Congress met virtually via GoToMeeting for the 3rd Special Session, called by Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear. Standing Bear has called the Congress back in for a 4th Special Session on Dec. 15. Osage News

Efforts to fund construction projects for the proposed new Wakon Iron chapel and community building, along with a proposed $5.5 million replenishment for the Osage Nation’s permanent fund failed during the Seventh ON Congressional special session on Nov. 24.

The special session started on Nov. 17 after Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear issued an executive proclamation proposing several items to be considered including the two Pawhuska Village structure projects and repaying the permanent fund for government operation expenditures due to the two-month shutdown of the Nation’s Osage Casinos after the COVID-19 pandemic reached Oklahoma. Standing Bear proposed the building projects and permanent fund replenishment be made with tribal funds from the $20.4 million “true-up” deposit made by the Gaming Enterprise Board to the Nation’s government on Sept. 30 which was the last day for the Nation’s 2020 fiscal year calendar.

News of the $20.4 million “true-up” brought hope to those Osage Congress members and Standing Bear who supported the proposal to fund the long-standing Pawhuska Village projects, which were not considered in the 2020 Tzi-Zho Session due to lack of unappropriated funding after Congress approved the FY 2021 government budgets leaving $1.9 million in remaining unappropriated projected revenue for the fiscal year. Standing Bear told Congress that timing was crucial in approving funds to start the Pawhuska Village projects bidding process as soon as possible otherwise the new buildings would not be completed until 2023.

With the $20.4 million deposit made on the last day of FY 2020, 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.   

When the Congressional Appropriations Committee met, questions on the Nation’s finances were raised including the status of the Nation’s annual audits and whether the $20.4 million was available for appropriations with unfinished audits. The retained revenue law, as written, 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.”

On the special session’s first day, Treasurer Jim Littleton told the appropriations committee the Nation’s audit for FY 2019 was not yet complete and work on FY 2020’s audit had not started. After committee meeting discussion on the retained revenue law and questions raised, Littleton sought an informal Attorney General’s opinion.

Littleton asked AG Clint Patterson “if the amount that the Osage Nation received from the Osage Casino on 09/30/20, can be classified as Retained Revenue prior to the completion of the FY 09/30/20 audit.” Patterson responded in a Nov. 18 letter: “The answer is no ... In reading the plain meaning of each word in context, unobligated funds cannot be considered retained earnings until the audit is completed.”

In response to the committee discussion and AG opinion, Congresswoman Brandy Lemon sponsored and filed bill ONCA 21-08 on Nov. 19 to make “a one-time exemption” from the retained revenue law for the $20 million. “Congresswoman Lemon’s bill would’ve released those funds to replenish the Permanent Fund and fund the chapel and community building for the Pawhuska District,” Standing Bear said.

According to Osage law, after a special session has commenced, “the proclamation may only be amended by affirmative vote of consent by two-thirds of the members. Notice of the vote on amending the Proclamation must be provided to the members two days in advance of the vote.”

In following the special session law, Lemon made a motion to amend the proclamation to include consideration of ONCA 21-08 on Nov. 24, but it failed with a 7-4 vote and one absence at the time from Congressman Scott BigHorse due to an appointment, according to Speaker Angela Pratt.

Voting “no” to amend the proclamation were Congressmen John Maker, Joe Tillman, Eli Potts and RJ Walker. “Yes” votes came from Alice Goodfox, Billy Keene, Lemon, Jodie Revard, Pam Shaw, Paula Stabler and Pratt. With the lack of votes to add ONCA 21-08 to the proclamation, the sponsors for the three bills at issue then withdrew the respective legislation from further action since those bills requested that the appropriation amounts come from the retained revenue fund versus the general fund in the Nation’s Treasury.

“Due to the failure of the proclamation (amendment vote), this means that the funds are not available for anything,” said Stabler who sponsored bills ONCA 20-65 and ONCA 21-02 seeking a combined $7.4 million for the Wakon Iron chapel and community building projects. “I felt like there’s light at the horizon, I feel like this money was a Godsend and we choose to look away. Because of that at this time, I am forced to withdraw (the bills) due to the lack of funding.”

After Stabler withdrew her bills, Revard said: “I’m going to have to also withdraw ONCA 21-03, this legislation was proposed to replenish our permanent fund and at this time ... I’m very disheartened that I thought that Congress had agreed with me at any time we had the ability to replenish our permanent fund that provides direct services, direct assistance to our people that I would have that support. In seeing that I don’t, then unfortunately I am going to have to withdraw my bill at this time.”  

In the Appropriations Committee discussion on Nov. 17, Congressional Budget Analyst Jordan Fraser provided the committee with a retained revenue fund report, which noted a negative-$66,000 balance prompting the discussion on the retained revenue law and communication with the Treasurer’s office. Littleton confirmed Fraser’s report was accurate noting transactions for past legislative bills were missing which led to the negative balance. As for the audits, Littleton said the FY 2019 audit is nearly complete with his office providing 5-10 remaining items to the third-party audit firm before the audit opinion is issued and then work would commence on the FY 2020 audit.

Littleton also told the committee the $20 million “true-up” is in the Nation’s general fund pending discussion on a separate legislative item, which is ONCR 21-01 (also sponsored by Revard, who is the current Appropriations Committee Chair), which is a “resolution to approve the Financial Management Plan and Investment Strategy of the Osage Nation.” The resolution passed unanimously on Nov. 24. 

In a Nov. 20 statement, Potts raised concern with the retained revenue fund discussion, adding he opposed efforts to amend the retained revenue law making the $20 million available ahead of the two audits’ completion. “This isn’t difficult: complete the audits and follow the law. We shouldn’t be changing or suspending laws to get what we want. We have an obligation to be fiscally responsible and sensible, especially during the continued worldwide pandemic,” Potts said in his statement.

In the same statement, Tillman and Maker also expressed concern with changing the law during the pandemic. “Now isn’t the time to change laws so we can appropriate millions of dollars to build brick and mortar when we have people worried about food and water. My preference is to wait until the Spring, when hopefully the audits are completed, reevaluate, and then make better decisions for the sake of the Osage Nation and its People,” Tillman said.

“It is our duty to provide accurate legislation and information to the Osage citizens. The Congress has to be transparent in everything we do, and we can’t make good decisions concerning our Osage Nation revenue without updated accurate numbers from the Treasurer,” said Congressman Maker.

During committee discussion on possibly amending the retained revenue fund law, Walker said: “I’m not necessarily in favor of going down that road right now. We’ve had a month to prepare for this session and that plain language has been in that bill from a long time ago.”

With the unprecedented $20 million “true-up” deposit made after a budget approval, Congressional legal counsel Loyed “Trey” Gill referred to it as “obviously a unique situation” as he also participated in the committee discussion. 

Lemon expressed concern in whether Congress had access to funding in the event the COVID-19 pandemic caused worse-case scenarios including another shutdown of the casinos impacting revenue or if other lockdown measures are mandated due to spreading. Afterward, she told Congress she would be proposing legislation “to work for us in the best interest of the people.”

Pratt noted Congress has voted to amend laws many times so the idea is not unprecedented. “Sometimes we write legislation because it’s in our best interest at the time, it’s how we see it at the time. I think sometimes we write legislation that doesn’t fit all our different scenarios or best interests. We also have the ability to amend the law to assist in our situation, I think we have the ability to make it work for us,” she said.

With no amended proclamation to consider Lemon’s bill and after separate remaining legislation items received approval from Congress, the special session was adjourned Nov. 24.

“I am disappointed the Permanent Fund was not replenished and the new chapel and community building for the people of the Pawhuska District was not funded,” Standing Bear said. “I will work with the Treasurer and Congress to regroup, share all accurate information, and then call another Special Session to put to good use the $20 million provided by Osage Casinos on September 30.”