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U.S. Treasury to distribute $4.8 billion in pandemic funds to tribal governments

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.

FILE PHOTO: A woman runs on a nearly empty street in the coronavirus outbreak near the Treasury Department in Washington, U.S. March 30, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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.

Democratic Senator Tom Udall, vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said the decision to start funds flowing to Native communities was “too little, too late,” and the full amount of the funding should be released.

“Native communities needed these resources for their health and economic recovery plans weeks ago,” Udall said. “Native communities are on the front lines of this crisis.”

Some tribes in the lower 48 states and some Alaska Native tribes had sued to say the Alaska tribal corporations were not eligible for the aid because did not meet the definition of being tribal governments.

On Tuesday, groups representing the Alaska tribal corporations filed a legal motion, arguing that they need the money right away and the federal government does not fully understand the dynamics of the situation.

Without the funding, the motion said, “many Alaska Natives and their communities will be left without the support Congress intended to provide.”

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 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; additional reporting by Yereth Rosen in Anchorage; Editing by Franklin Paul, Bernadette Baum and Leslie Adler