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Treasury: Some tribes will get more money from CARES Act

Last Updated May 4, 2021 at 4:04 pm PDT

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Some Native American tribes will receive more money from a federal virus relief package approved last year after the U.S. Treasury Department revised it’s methodology that tribal nations contend was badly skewed.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act set aside $8 billion for tribes. The Treasury Department distributed 60% of it, or $4.8 billion, based on population data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Three tribes sued over the methodology, alleging they were shortchanged by millions because tribal enrolment figures were higher than those reflected in federal data.

It’s unclear exactly how many tribes, aside from the trio of plaintiffs, will benefit from the revised calculation or how much they’ll get.

The Shawnee Tribe in Oklahoma and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians in Florida were among those given the minimum $100,000 because the HUD data showed they had a population of zero. The Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation in Kansas argued it should have received $7.65 million more than it got.

Pilar Thomas, who is representing the Shawnee Tribe, said Tuesday that she’s still reviewing the methodology to determine the impact.

Meanwhile, the U.S. District Court judge overseeing the case from Washington set a hearing next week in light of the Treasury Department saying it will start making payments to plaintiffs this week.

About $530 million remains for tribes from the CARES Act funding, most of which is tied up in a U.S. Supreme Court case that centres on whether Alaska Native corporations are eligible for a share. The high court held oral arguments last month and seemed inclined to rule in favour of the corporations but hasn’t issued a final decision.

In the case involving the Shawnee, Miccosukee and Prairie Band Potawatomi tribes, a federal court has said the tribes are likely to succeed in their challenges over the Treasury Department’s population-based disbursements and ordered $21 million from the remaining funds withheld.

The Treasury Department said it will look at the difference between the federal data and the enrolment data provided by tribes and rank them, so the top 15% get an additional payment. The higher the ratio between the two data sets, the larger the percentage of funding a tribe will get, the department said.

“The funds available for reallocation are limited and, therefore, only the most substantial disparities can be addressed,” the department wrote in a briefing paper.

The Treasury Department acknowledged a request for additional information Tuesday but did not immediately respond to questions.

Not all of the 574 federally recognized tribes across the United States have provided their own enrolment figures to the federal government, the Treasury Department said.

Eric Henson, an adjunct lecturer at Harvard University who has studied the tribal disbursements, said that points to a need for a certified enrolment data set for tribes, with either the federal government reaching out to tribes or the tribes keeping updated figures.

“That’s one foundational part of this proposed solution that kind of makes my head spin with questions,” said Henson, who is Chickasaw.

The Treasury Department has said it used HUD data because it would correlate with the amount of money tribal governments have spent responding to the coronavirus pandemic. Tribal enrolment figures don’t distinguish between members or citizens who live on and off reservations.

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta in Washington initially ruled the Treasury Department had discretion in how it distributes CARES Act funding to tribes and the methodology wasn’t subject to court review.

A federal appeals court revived the tribes’ claims and sent them back to Mehta for a decision on the merits.

Felicia Fonseca, The Associated Press