Treasury missteps held up distribution of $8 billion in coronavirus relief
A series of missteps by the Treasury Department and resulting legal battles delayed the coronavirus relief funds from reaching Indian Country in a timely manner, but by mid-June, virtually all of the $8 billion set aside for tribes in the CARES Act had been distributed.
Relief funds received by the Mille Lacs Band were used to make up for casino revenues that were lost during the 11-week closure of Grand Casinos. The dollars were spent on emergency assistance to Band members, special health measures, food packages for Elders and other vulnerable members, special educational support, and payroll support.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was passed in March 27 to address the economic fallout of the pandemic. The Act set a deadline of April 26 for payments to be made to tribes.
The first $4.8 billion in relief funds was not distributed until May 5, and $3.2 billion was withheld until June 12 due to lawsuits challenging the way the federal government allocated the money.
That left $679 million, which Judge Amit Mehta of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ordered the department to release on June 15. Mehta said the delays had caused "irreparable harm" to tribes.
"Congress made a policy judgment that tribal governments are in dire need of emergency relief to aid in their public health efforts and imposed an incredibly short time limit to distribute those dollars," Judge Mehta wrote. "The 80 days they have waited, when Congress intended receipt of emergency funds in less than half that time, is long enough."
Members of Congress agreed with the judge's ruling.
Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.), vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said, "The Court is absolutely correct: this administration has and continues to do 'irreparable harm' to Indian Country as it inexplicably holds back funds that Congress intended to get to Tribal governments urgently."
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), chairman of the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States on the House Natural Resources Committee, said, "It is unconscionable that it has taken court action to force this administration to distribute relief to Tribal governments as Congress intended and the law requires."
Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), one of two Native American women in Congress, said, "Sovereign Nations shouldn't have to fight for money that Congress approves, ever. It’s shameful that a judge has to force the Treasury to do their job."