By Susan Montoya Bryan — Associated Press
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) – A spat over emergency spending on the Navajo Nation has boiled over now that the Tribal Council has overturned a presidential veto after being warned by the president that other projects could be compromised if the spending was approved.
Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. vetoed a more than $17 million appropriation earlier in March that was meant to provide relief for a weather emergency because tribal delegates had tacked on millions of dollars for unrelated projects.
Council delegates responded with a special session March 21 to consider Shirley’s veto. After voting 68 – 8 to override the veto, the council chamber in Window Rock, Ariz., erupted with cheers and applause.
”The immediate needs of the Navajo people needed to be addressed,” Council Speaker Lawrence Morgan said. ”The council continues working for the Navajo people and they will do what they can to address future immediate needs.”
With the override, the council issued a directive to the tribe’s budget office to immediately begin disbursing checks to the tribe’s 110 chapters.
The debate over fiscal responsibility started in February when Shirley requested $1 million to help the tribe recover from winter storms that left many roads across the sprawling reservation impassable. The council added $16 million in funding for scholarships, housing, veterans and public employment projects before approving the request.
Shirley argued that the emergency funding should have been separate from the other spending requests and that the council should not have sought to use money from the tribe’s Grant Reserve Fund.
”Using funds for purposes other than those intended, as this resolution authorizes, sets a dangerous precedent and leaves other funds vulnerable,” he said at the time.
George Hardeen, a spokesman for Shirley, said the president’s office tried to explain to delegates that the spending measure would all but drain the $18 million reserve fund and that capital improvement
projects planned in many chapters would be compromised because the tribe would no longer have funds to reimburse chapters for those projects.
”The president tried to explain to them that they shouldn’t do this, but it appears when the council discovers there is funding available, they use it,” Hardeen said. ”… This is not the first time the council has appropriated money in this way. There must be a belief that they can twist the president’s arm behind his back and make him sign this kind of legislation.”
Morgan’s office said the response to Shirley’s veto was immediate, as several chapters called their elected officials to say that the emergency money was greatly needed.
The request for weather-related funds was in response to the state of emergency declared Jan. 28 by Shirley and the Navajo Commission on Emergency Management. That emergency was listed in mid-March.
The council used the Benally family of Burnt Corn Valley, Ariz., as an example of the need to get funding to the chapters. Melissa Benally and her three children were sleeping in their hogan when mud and water brought on by the winter weather caused one of the home’s walls to collapse.
”I tried to ask my chapter for help and they said there was no money to help me get my home fixed,” Benally told the council.
Delegate Raymond Joe shook his head as he listened to Benally.
”I wish President Shirley would visit some of these communities and see firsthand the damage, the destruction and the helplessness his people feel,” Joe said.
Hardeen argued that it was Shirley who had asked for the emergency funding to deal with the weather related problems on the reservation and that the council decided to add the additional appropriations.
”I don’t know how many times he’s vetoed spending measures because the Navajo Council waives law in order to appropriate,” Hardeen said.