The third major emergency funding package making its way through the U.S. Congress to address the COVID-19 public health and economic crises includes $8 billion for Indian Country.
The Senate passed the $2.2 trillion “CARES Act” late on March 25. It now goes to the House for consideration before it would make its way to President Trump’s desk for potential approval.
Indian Country leaders discussed the funding and Indian Country’s situation in the midst of the pandemic in a “Tribal Leader Town Hall” teleconference organized by the Native American Finance Officers Association (NAFOA) on March 26 – one of many that has taken place in the last two weeks.
The current funding bill is massive in scope and is intended to stave off total economic collapse.
The funding level is more than twice the size of President Barack Obama’s 2009 Recovery Act and more than twice the size of President George W. Bush’s 2008 Wall Street rescue.
One of its more urgent pieces is $150 billion for hospitals and other health entities. (The Indian Health Service (IHS) secured $1 billion in funding in the previous funding package).
The CARES Act provides direct payments to most Americans – including Native Americans – in addition to a major increase in unemployment benefits.
There is $850 billion worth of loan programs for distressed businesses, with some provisions to try and incentivize companies from laying off workers.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is looking at options for voting on the bill without members physically returning to the Capitol.
Congressional leaders already acknowledge the need for a fourth or fifth response.
For tribal leaders the immediate task has been making sure members of Congress are listening to them and that funding appropriations are fair.
Sen. Martha McSally, R- AZ, is on the Senate Committee for Indian Affairs. She spoke to tribal leaders on the March 26 teleconference.
“We are all in this together and I know there is a lot of fear and uncertainly,” McSally said. “This is an all-of-society effort. I believe we will prevail.”
McSally said a concern for Indian Country is having a mechanism in place for entities and individuals to get needed funds quickly.
“To get food on the table and meet basic needs,” she said. “Tribal members will benefit from this immediately.”
The package includes checks for individuals and families and a boost in unemployment insurance for four months. McSally said checks could be distributed as quickly as two to three weeks after the bill is signed into law.
“People laid off from Native American communities will benefit from it,” McSally said. “We want to make sure we’re getting resources to people so they aren’t falling into food and health insecurity.”
One of the efforts in the bill is to make sure employees stay connected to employers to the maximum extent possible. That means quickly getting money to businesses so that they can keep pay flowing to employees, McSally said.
“It’s better than standing in line to get unemployment benefits, especially when [the system] is overwhelmed. And it’s better psychologically,” she said.
“McSally said the funding package contains loan incentives of differing levels for businesses with fewer than 500 full time employees, as well as for companies with more than 500 full time employees.”
“It’s to provide liquidity and cash flow to incentive them to keep people on the payroll while we defeat this disease; and we will,” she said.
There are other elements to the bill that address broadband and access to telehealth, which disproportionately affect Indian Country, McSally said.
Rep. Kendra Horn, D-OK, also spoke during the teleconference. She echoed many of the points McSally made.
“We have so many needs. It’s critical for us to include Native Americans and tribal communities,” she said.