Bates: Navajo will feel sequester cuts, the question is when

By Alysa Landry
Special to the Times

WASHINGTON, June 27, 2013

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A s many as 2.1 million American jobs still are on the chopping block as the $85 billion sequester cuts trickle into the workforce.

That's an estimated 750,000 direct jobs and an additional 1.35 million indirect jobs as the federal government begins its massive efforts to cut the deficit by $1.2 trillion during the next decade.

The sequester went into effect March 1, and since then, the federal workforce has decreased by about 45,000 positions, including 14,000 in May alone. State and local governments also have started cutting employees and payrolls, and tribes aren't far behind.

Yet even as the Sept. 30 deadline looms, marking the end of the federal fiscal year, the Navajo Nation still lacks specifics on what programs will be hit the hardest and by how much.

"It's frustrating from the standpoint of not being able to provide the people some kind of direction," said LoRenzo Bates, chairman of the Navajo Nation Council's Budget and Finance Committee. "We can make recommendations, but we're grasping at straws. That's not the way decisions should be made."

The Nation can expect a $15.9 million reduction to its budget, said Clara Pratte, executive director of the Navajo Nation Washington Office, this week. That's significantly lower than earlier projections that chopped $23 million from the tribe's $170 million annual budget.

"We are finally getting our numbers now, three months later," Pratte said. "We are finally learning what our budget will be for the rest of the fiscal year."

The frustrating thing on the tribal level is that delayed cuts mean cramped budget processes, Pratte said.

"There are tribes out there that get as much as 98 percent of their budgets from the federal government," she said. "That makes it difficult to do any kind of advanced planning. When you don't know the numbers ahead of time, you have a short timeframe to budget."


And if this year's financial outlook is unclear, next year's is even muddier, Pratte said.

"It's hard to assess where we will be in October," she said. "That's saying nothing about where we'll be a year from now."

The Budget and Finance Committee is examining all programs and funding, Bates said. The Nation can choose to dip into its pockets to subsidize programs this year, he said, but reduced federal spending is here to stay.

"What do we do?" he said. "Do we cut fully, partially or just do away with entire programs? Any subsidizing of any programs will not be a one-time thing because the sequester is ongoing. It's not a one-time thing."

Budget and Finance also is considering the possibility of increased internal revenues, Bates said. Sequester cuts mean the tribe will need to be more self-sufficient, make existing dollars stretch further and be innovative when it comes to producing home-grown revenues.

Navajo President Ben Shelly has called the sequester an opportunity for American Indian nations to reduce federal red tape.

"We're part of the deficit," he said June 14 during a meeting in New Mexico with other tribal leaders. "Give me the power to become more energy independent."

Yet as federal agencies cut personnel and hours and try to absorb most of the cuts at higher levels, local leaders struggle to answer questions about the impact to the Navajo workforce.

Regardless of the numbers, the Nation will feel the cuts, Bates said. The question is when.

"There are no jobs lost now, no cuts on the ground," he said. "The impact is unknown, but it's coming."

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