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ON Congress passes four bills to continue government operations amid pandemic

By

Benny Polacca

With the ongoing global pandemic COVID-19 threatening to shut down Osage government operations and services, the Sixth Osage Nation Congress approved four bills making tribal money available, including $8.1 million from the Permanent Fund.

The unprecedented move in appropriating rainy day money on April 16 from the Nation’s $30 million Permanent Fund came after the Congress voted 10-2 to pass bill ONCA 19-63 (sponsored by Congressional Speaker Joe Tillman) amending the Permanent Fund law “to authorize utilization of funds by appropriation for government operations and government services during a financial emergency.”

There is currently no tribal funding revenue coming from the temporarily closed seven Osage Casinos. Grant funding awarded to the Nation earlier in the year is restricted to specific department and program uses. The ON Tax Commission lacks sustaining tribal revenue. The 2020 Hun-Kah Session and committee meeting discussions quickly turned toward the proposed appropriation bills to keep the government operating and to pay its employees.

After ONCA 19-63’s passage, the Congress approved three appropriation bills by majority votes including:

– ONCA 20-26 (Congresswoman Brandy Lemon) makes $1.4 million available from the Nation’s Retained Revenue Fund. Lemon filed the bill after Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear declared a public health state of emergency on March 19 resulting in non-essential ON government employees to work from home. The bill’s co-sponsors are Congress members Alice Goodfox, Angela Pratt, RJ Walker, Maria Whitehorn, Eli Potts, Shannon Edwards and Second Speaker Paula Stabler. The bill passed with a 12-0 vote on April 16.

– ONCA 20-34 (Tillman) authorizes and appropriates $8,166,000 “from the Permanent Fund to the (ON Treasury) for (ON) government operations and government services.” Bill co-sponsors are Congress members Scott Bighorse, Lemon, Pratt and Stabler. The bill passed with a 10-2 vote with “no” votes from Congress members Potts and Edwards on April 16.

– ONCA 20-27 (Lemon) authorizes and appropriated $802,203 from the Nation’s Capital Assets Fund. The bill also references the public health state of emergency with its purpose stating: “To continue offering essential services to the Osage people, it was determined funds previously appropriated for the Legislative Branch (toward planning a new building for the respective branch) may be used to help fulfill the operations of the Osage government.” Bill co-sponsors are Goodfox, Pratt, Walker, Whitehorn, Edwards and Potts. The bill passed with a 12-0 vote during the April 17 session.

Tillman’s ONCA 19-63 bill seeking the Permanent Fund law amendment changes the requirement for accessing the rainy day money, which previously specified the money was only available for expenditure on direct assistance (by Congressional appropriation) for the Nation’s membership. Co-sponsors are Lemon, Pratt and Stabler. The Congress voted 10-2 with Potts and Edwards voting “no.”

Edwards said she voted against ONCA 19-63 citing lack of definitions, including one for a “financial emergency,” which she didn’t believe was declared but would be supporting ONCA 20-26 and ONCA 20-27.

Potts said he supported bills ONCA 20-26 and ONCA 20-27, which included language specificity that the money is made “available to fulfill the cash flow requirements of the Nation for previously appropriated and authorized (2020 fiscal year) funds” to continue the current year operations.   

For ONCA 20-26, Lemon said the bill was a collaborative effort with the Executive Branch, which presented the plan for using pockets of tribal money to continue operations “due to the situation that we’re currently in.”

ONCA 20-34 garnered the most debate and discussion before its 10-2 passage, which Tillman described as a “simple bill but it’s a very powerful one.”

Potts referred to the recently passed federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which he said includes “lengthy details and met specifically the needs of the United States people that were seeking relief” and noted similar relief bills passed recently at the Oklahoma legislative level, as well as the $31 million FY 2020 budget for the Nation’s departments and services during the 2019 Tzi-Zho Session. Potts said those respective budget bills specify details on amounts of money budgeted for expenditures and he had no answers on where the $8.1 million would be spent and would vote “no.”

Stabler acknowledged previous Congressional efforts in 2013 to establish the Permanent Fund, including Standing Bear, who was on Congress and sponsored the establishing law (ONCA 12-85) at the time. “If it wasn’t for that, think of the state of this Nation would be in today. This appropriation today is a necessary appropriation, it’s in order to get us stabilized for the next few months and then we have to decide where we’re going from there,” Stabler said.

Edwards agreed with parts of Stabler’s comments stating the Nation needs to do better at saving money on a regular basis “for a rainy day … I have no doubt the Nation needs this money to continue with its operation, but operations and services are not just the government itself, they are the services and direct assistance that we provide to the people. There’s no provision in this bill that guarantees any direct assistance already promised to the Osage people will be paid out, in fact, this money could be used for new initiatives to the detriment of those already existing commitments,” she said, adding she is voting “no” for the bill.   

Whitehorn, who ultimately voted “yes” for the bill, said she saw pros and cons to the bill, noting written law should state “how the government should function and how our people understand how our government and laws work for them” and she too is concerned and believes the bill does not contain “clearer instructions” on how the $8.1 million “of the people’s money” will be spent.

Pratt voted “yes” noting “we’re the Osage Nation” and not the U.S. Government or Oklahoma state legislature. “We want to take care of our people and when we talk about that, there’s a lot of things that go along with that, but gratefully I am glad I had the opportunity to grow up here – the last home of our people – and see them, and visit with them, and mourn with them, watch our family members go into the ground and be there and comfort them when that happens. That’s who we are as a people and we take food over and we sit up with them during wakes. We are there to visit and just comfort and grab a plate for an elder when we’re at a cultural event … and put them first and all those things that come with being Osage and part of our culture and celebrating with one another and I believe we have a Chief and tribal leaders who want to take care of our people here and continue to help them along because of what they do for us because our elders continue to guide us … Because our Osage elders provide us wisdom and knowledge in how we’re going to carry on because if that isn’t carried on, who are we down the line?”

In her debate time, Pratt also said if it was possible, she would ask for more money to go toward Osage Casino employees who are furloughed due to the closures with no revenue coming in.

Lemon said recently “someone reached out and gave me their hand and comforted me in a way that I could never repay that, and this piece of legislation does that for our employees, we give them a sigh of relief and can lift some of that fear … If everyone squabbles over a few words, that’s your right and you own your vote, but fear can cause us to do and say and act in many ways that we don’t realize sometimes. I am in support of this … We all get to have our own opinion, but now is not the time to squabble over words. Whenever we need to take action, our people need action, not words.”

Congressman John Maker said he supports ONCA 20-34 noting “when you’re in a pandemic global emergency, you have to rely on your leadership and I put my trust in the Principal Chief of the Osage Nation to do the right thing with this fund just like when he introduced the bill to create the permanent fund and we made it with a lot of strong restrictions so it couldn’t be used unnecessarily … We have to think of our people,” he said.

Walker said the bill enables the government to continue services and employees to be paid and “now isn’t the time to play partisan politics or whatever it may be called. Even though we’re all Osages, it seems like there’s always some sort of divide. Time to put that aside, let’s vote as one and send a powerful clear message to our people.”

In closing debate, Tillman said he received an email from Standing Bear thanking him for sponsoring ONCA 20-34 “and that meant a lot to me because our Chief right now is making some very challenging decisions and so I would also like to thank his staff, people he trusts and surrounds himself with, to navigate through these difficult times because I know they support it as well. This (bill) came about when we were in a meeting with our gaming (board and management) folks and their inability to make the (monthly) distribution from them to us and we all realize that would be critical devastation for the government operations and government services.”

Tillman thanked the other Congress members who gave initial consideration to the bill in the governmental operations committee, as well as Congressional legal counsel Loyed “Trey” Gill who all reviewed the bill and approved of its written form before the final vote.

“This was difficult legislation, but a necessary piece of legislation that is going to go to the government operations and government services … We’ve also put additional duties on our Treasurer Mr. (Jim) Littleton as set out in ONCA 19-63 – ‘The Treasurer shall submit to the Principal Chief and the Osage Nation Congress a report, with the individual expenditures listed, each month that expenditures are disbursed out of the Permanent Fund.’” … And I pray to God every night that he will spare the Osage Nation and we have the leadership in place and I fully believe the Osage Nation will come out of this and prosper even further.”

Congressional Clerk Shana Robedeaux conducted the roll call vote on ONCA 20-34, resulting in the 10-2 vote and the bill was sent to the Executive Branch. Later that same day, Standing Bear signed the three passed bills into law.


Original Publish Date: 2020-04-17 00:00:00

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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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