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Politics

Some CARES Act funding remains in limbo. For tribes that could impact reopening

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Roughly 40% of CARES Act funding intended for Native American tribes remains in limbo.

One Michigan tribal leader said that could impact their reopening.

Nationally, several tribes sued the federal government in April over the decision to include Alaska Native corporations among those able to receive funding under the CARES Act.

Tribes argued that for-profit Native corporations should not be allowed to receive relief funds.

A federal judge blocked $8-billion in CARES Act funding from going to the corporations while the case is pending. The Department of Treasury has announced in the meantime it will disburse roughly $4.8-billion to the 574 federally recognized tribes.

Bryan Newland is the President of the Bay Mills Indian Community. He said without the full funding it’s difficult for tribes to prepare to reopen.

“You can’t purchase a house without having a budget. And you can’t build a plan for reopening your tribal economy without having a budget,” he said.

Newland said he believes the federal government is intentionally dragging its feet. So far, Bay Mills has received $2.7-million.

“The administration didn’t want to include this funding for tribes in the first place. On all fronts, the administration has dragged its feet for tribes to get relief under that bill,” Newland said. “And it is not just these funds it is the paycheck protection program, commercial fishing relief, medical and health equipment, and personal protection equipment.”

Newland said the uncertainty could force tribes to choose between reopening without the necessary equipment or keeping businesses shuttered and at risk of permanent closure.

“It has a direct impact. It is either going to put their health and safety at risk or it is going to put their economic lifeblood at risk. It is hurting people.”

It is not clear when the remainder of the federal funds will be disbursed.

Matthew Fletcher is a Law Professor at Michigan State University and a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. He said allowing Native corporations to receive CARES funding would be a huge corporate giveaway.

“Those Alaska Native corporations are not federally recognized tribes. They do not provide government services to Indian people. They are just straight-up corporate entities that happen to have majority ownership of Native people.”

Fletcher said the federal government could drag its feet for a long time.

“If they wanted to for political reasons, for bureaucratic reasons, just out of spite. They could hold onto that money for months and months.”

That could create another problem. Bryan Newland, with Bay Mills, said the funds are required to be used this year.

“Even if we get a favorable ruling in November that the Treasury has to distribute this money to tribes that’s going to leave Indian country with less than 60 days to figure out how to spend millions of dollars or billions of dollars collectively. It’s going to put us in a no-win situation.”

The Department of Treasury did not respond to our request for comment.