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Spending Rules for Relief Funds Put Tribes in Tough Spot

Outside of government relief assistance, many Native American tribes, including the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, are appealing for online donations to help with their response to COVID-19. (Rosebud Tribe)
Outside of government relief assistance, many Native American tribes, including the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, are appealing for online donations to help with their response to COVID-19. (Rosebud Tribe)
July 28, 2020

ROSEBUD, S.D. -- Native American tribes are in a difficult situation in putting COVID relief money to use. The aid came several months after the pandemic started, leaving tribes behind in their response and unsure about meeting spending deadlines.

The federal CARES Act, approved in March, allocated $8 billion for tribal governments. But there were delays from the Treasury Department in distributing aid, resulting in lawsuits from various tribes. By the time the money was dispersed, costs were mounting for communities that were chronically underfunded before the crisis.

Steven Emery, chief executive of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, said they finally received their relief funding in June. He said that gave them a smaller window for effective response planning.

"All expenditures must be done by December 30, 2020. And since the tribes received their money later than the states did, for instance, we're more confined in what we can do just because of the time frame," Emery said.

Emery said they would like to build an emergency quarantine shelter to deal with any future waves of the coronavirus, but delays in funding make it impossible to get that done by year's end.

Tribes across the country are lobbying for an extension of the deadline and more flexibility in how the money can be spent.

The CARES Act puts hard limits on how state, local and tribal governments can use the relief money they have received, such as shoring up lost revenue. But for Native American tribes, casino revenue makes up a large portion of their budgets, making it harder to pull from other resources when gambling venues scale back operations.

Emery said that's why tribes should be given more leeway on this issue.

"There's such a tight line on the Treasury guidelines that if some of those were eased, it would be very helpful," he said.

Native American tribes also have limited staff trying to cover large geographical areas that make up reservations. That sets up more barriers in completing projects related to the COVID response.

The Rosebud Sioux Tribe was given nearly $48 million in CARES Act funding. Emery said they have used some of it to bolster enforcement of stay-at-home orders, while purchasing additional ambulances.

Mike Moen, Public News Service - SD