By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Treasury Department will begin distributing $4.8 billion in pandemic-relief funds to Native American tribal governments in all U.S. states on Tuesday, the Treasury and Interior Departments said in a joint statement.
Payments would begin Tuesday to help the tribes respond to the novel coronavirus outbreak, based on population data in U.S. Census figures, the statement said, while payments based on employment and expenditure data would be made at a later date.
Amounts calculated for Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act regional and village corporations, for-profit businesses that serve tribal villages in Alaska, would be held back until pending litigation relating to their eligibility was resolved, they said.
The decision frees up about 60% of the $8 billion in funds earmarked for Native tribes in the CARES Act, after delays caused by a legal dispute among the nation’s native populations over who is entitled to the aid.
Some tribes in the lower 48 states had sued to say the Alaska tribal corporations were not eligible for the aid since they were not tribal governments.
The Treasury and Interior departments have decided to proceed with disbursing some of the aid while the litigation continues.
Native tribes have been seriously impacted by the outbreak, with the Navajo Nation, which resides in Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, trailing only the hardest-hit states New Jersey and New York in terms of the highest infection rate, according to Bettina Ramon, with the People for the American Way think-tank.
Health disparities, higher rates of poverty and a lack of insurance make tribal groups especially vulnerable, she said, noting casinos, a big source of income in some Native communities, were also omitted from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.
Treasury would distribute the remaining 40% of the $8 billion based on the total number of persons employed by the Native tribes and any tribally-owned entity, the statement said, as well as the amount of higher expenses faced by the tribe in the fight against the virus.
Treasury would work with the tribes to confirm employment numbers and seek additional information regarding higher expenses due to the public health emergency.
The pending litigation had introduced additional uncertainty into the process of making payments to the tribes, but Treasury said it was working to “make payments of the remaining amounts as promptly as possible consistent with the Department’s obligation to ensure that allocations are made in a fair and appropriate manner.”
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal, Editing by Franklin Paul and Bernadette Baum)