Changes aim to protect cash from spending

By Marley Shebala
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, Oct. 17, 2011

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There's nearly $45 million in the tribe's Undesignated Unreserved Fund but it may not be there for long if the Navajo Nation Council approves amendments to the Appropriations Act next week.

Twelve members of the Nabik'yati' Committee voted Tuesday to give the amendments a do-pass recommendation, making its passage a good bet during the Council's fall session next week.

The amendments, sponsored by Lorenzo Curley (Houck/Klagetoh/Nahata Dziil/Tse si'ani/Wide Ruins) would expand Ð instead of waiving - rules limiting the Council's ability to spend the money, most of which is a one-time cash infusion from settlement of a lawsuit against Peabody Energy.

The intention is to protect the money from the chaotic methods of passing supplemental spending bills used in past years, said one Council leader, although some provisions would arguably reduce some restraints imposed under the current law.

The amendments moved at warp speed through the committee process, with the Budget and Finance Committee and the Law and Order Committee meeting during the Nabik'yati' Committee's lunch break to review the legislation, which they both gave a "do-pass" recommendation.

The proposed amendments would add language to the Appropriations Act that would allow the Council to make supplemental appropriations earlier in the budget year.

The current budget year started Oct. 1 and ends Sept. 30, 2012.

The tribe's spending law now prohibits the Council from making supplemental appropriations until projected revenues are met and the UUF, the tribe's rainy day fund, has a minimum balance equal to 10 percent of the prior fiscal year's budget.

In this case, that would be $17 million since the 2011 budget was $170 million.

The projected revenues for the 2011 budget were not realized until August, two months before the end of the budget year.

The Appropriations Act also mandates that any amendments to it must come from the Council's Budget and Finance Committee, of which Curley is a member.

In presenting his bill to the committee Tuesday, said the reason for the amendments is to update the law and move supplemental appropriations legislation more efficiently through the legislative review process.

"These amendments make it simpler and easier for the Council to serve the needs of more constituents," he added.

B&F committee Chair LoRenzo Bates (Nenahnezad/Newcomb/San Juan/T'iistoh Sikaad/Tse Daa K'aan/Upper Fruitland) said in a separate interview that the move to streamline the process for supplemental spending began as soon as the delegates learned that the UUF, which for the last couple of years has been millions in the red, now contained close to $40 million.

Bates, who has championed spending restraint during his years in the Council, said the amendment process was initiated to prevent a repeat of past years where last-minute spending requests would come from the Council floor with little or no explanation or justification.

Approval depended more on the political clout of the sponsor than on the proposal's merit, with massive expenditures involving a little sugar for every chapter being particularly popular.

Bates also noted that the law currently requires the B&F Committee to hold hearings on the annual budget and supplemental spending bills, although the Law & Order Committee recommended that this responsibility be ceded to the Nabik'yati' Committee, to which all the delegates belong.

Bates said that the committee's proposed supplemental spending process would set priorities for allocating funds, such as the Peabody settlement, that are a one-time windfall.

Among the potential competition for supplemental spending are all three branches of the tribal government, which got significantly less than their stated need in the current budget.

According to President Ben Shelly's 2011 budget message, the executive branch is short by about $65 million.

The much-smaller judicial branch's unmet needs totaled about $1.6 million, according to previous statements by Chief Justice Herb Yazzie.



And Speaker Johnny Naize (Blue Gap-Tachee/Cottonwood-Tselani/Low Mountain/Many Farms/Nazlini) stated in an Oct.

7 press release that Shelly's line-item veto of parts of the 2012 budget resulted in a $2.8 million loss to the legislative branch, which included $337,000 from his office and $1.9 million from legislative services.

The Nabik'yati' Committee has discussed the possibility of recovering the money lost by Shelly's line-item vetoes through supplemental appropriations.

Bates said that another player in the supplemental appropriations is former President Peterson Zah, who is asking for about $30 million - most of what remains from the $50 million Peabody payment - to create a scholarship trust fund for future students and to more fully fund the current need for scholarships.

Dine Voice, a student organization spearheading an electronic petition drive and letter writing campaign in support of Zah's initiative, had 440 signatures as of Wednesday.

They state on their Web site, (https://sites.google.com/site/anevoice/), that they mailed the first group of signatures to Naize on Sept.

28.

Bates said another competitor for supplemental funds comes from the need to replace the office space lost when Administration Building No.

1 was declared uninhabitable recently because of mold contamination.

The B&F Committee heard a report that it would cost millions of dollars to completely clean the building, raising the question of whether it would make more sense to construct a new building, he said.

Now, Bates added, the committee is hearing that Administration Building No.

2 and the tribal government's training center might have to close for the same reason.

The cost of relocating all the tribal programs housed in Admin No.

1 is unknown, but it was not in the fiscal 2012 budget, which was completed before the building was shut down.

Ironically, the building housed the tribe's Division of Finance, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Office of Risk Management, and the water leakage that caused the mold was a long-time problem widely known among employees who worked there.

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