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Inland Northwest tribes call for Congress to extend deadline for coronavirus emergency spending

Spokane Tribal Council Chairwoman Carol Evans, far right, and Margo Hill and Jeff Ferguson, Spokane Tribal citizens, stand for a photograph in October 2020. Evans is among the the tribal leaders calling on Congress to extend a deadline to spend federal coronavirus assistance funds.   (Libby Kamrowski/ THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

WASHINGTON – Tribes in the Inland Northwest are calling on Congress to extend a Dec. 30 deadline to spend federal coronavirus relief funds, warning that inaction could strip tribal governments of critical resources just as the country enters what could be the worst period of the pandemic.

The Spokane Tribe sent a letter Thursday to Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, and Washington Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, both Democrats, urging the lawmakers to support bipartisan legislation that would extend the deadline to spend the money to Sept. 30, 2021, Spokane Tribe Chairwoman Carol Evans said.

“This virus isn’t stopping Dec. 30,” Evans said. “The ability to continue to use those funds to help people in need because of the virus is real important.”

Extending the deadline – which also applies to state and local governments that received federal pandemic relief funds – appears to have the bipartisan support needed to pass, but legislative gridlock and an unusually contentious “lame duck” session of Congress is creating uncertainty.

Tribal leaders worry that if lawmakers fail to act, tribes could be forced to return unspent money to the Treasury Department at the worst point in the pandemic. Confusion over how the funds may be spent also creates a risk tribes could be on the hook for unallowable expenses.

Rodney Cawston, chairman of the Colville Business Council, said the Colville Tribes need not just an extension but additional federal support to get through the winter.

“I hope that they can pull it together and really address this,” Cawston said, because the tribes have had to contend with “the uncertainty whether they will provide any additional stimulus funds, and yet the pandemic is not over with.”

Congress approved $8 billion for tribes in March, but the Treasury Department didn’t make payments to tribal governments until May and in September changed guidance about how the funds could be used . Tribes have used the funds to provide health care, housing and broadband internet infrastructure to enable remote work, school and doctor’s visits.

According to federal spending data, the Spokane Tribe received $25.2 million, the Colville Tribes $44 million, the Kalispel Tribe $13.4 million, the Kootenai Tribe $1.9 million and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe $13.5 million from the Treasury Department. The allocations were based on a formula that took into account spending, employment and population data.

Curt Holmes, vice chairman of the Kalispel Tribe, said the short timeline has forced the tribe to spend the money quickly instead of on longer-term needs like housing.

“If there had been additional time to begin with we feel we could have better tailored some of our response efforts,” Holmes said in a statement. “Minority communities, particularly reservations, have been devastated by the pandemic. Part of us minimizing risk for our most vulnerable members is ensuring they have stable housing.”

Public health officials warn the country could be heading into the worst stretch of the pandemic, with vaccines unlikely to be widely available before spring. Congress set the year-end deadline in March, when the pandemic’s timeline was unclear.

Tyrel Stevenson, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s legislative director, said it doesn’t make sense to cut off funding just as winter begins, with COVID-19 cases rising nationwide.

“This pandemic is far from over,” Stevenson said. “That hard-and-fast deadline is really artificial in the face of what’s happening on the ground. The pandemic is clearly going to extend past Dec. 30. We’re clearly going to experience costs and hardships beyond Dec. 30.”

Gary Aitken Jr., chairman of the Kootenai Tribe, said Congress should also give tribes greater flexibility in how they can spend the money. The CARES Act, passed in March, requires tribal, state and local governments to use the funds only on pandemic-related expenses not already in their budgets.

“Infrastructure projects should be explicitly allowed under any new stimulus bill,” Aitken said in an email. “Replacement of lost revenue is also critical to enable a swift economic recovery by limiting the impacts associated with the pandemic. Increasing broadband access to allow for telehealth and telelearning are needed.”

Tribes have received additional federal relief funds through state grants, which face the same spending deadline. The Kalispel and Spokane tribes and Colville Confederated Tribes each got roughly $1.1 million through the Washington State Department of Commerce, which would apply any deadline extension passed by Congress to those funds, department spokeswoman Penny Thomas said.

With state and local governments facing the same deadline and also lobbying Congress to act, it’s likely lawmakers will try to attach a provision to extend it to one of two must-pass pieces of legislation in December: a bill to fund the government and the annual defense spending bill. It could also be rolled into a new coronavirus relief deal, although such a package is less likely to pass by the end of the year.

Rep. Russ Fulcher, a Republican who represents North Idaho, said he is regularly in contact with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. – two of the key GOP negotiators on a relief bill – and would encourage them to include a deadline extension if a deal is struck.

A spokesman for Murray, Michael J. Brewer, confirmed that the Washington Democrat also supports extending the deadline.

Fulcher said he was looking into getting waivers to allow more flexibility in spending the funds, but a Treasury spokesperson said the department doesn’t have the authority to change the spending requirements or extend the deadline.

“We considered carefully the statutory requirement that expenses must be ‘incurred’ before December 30, 2020, and determined that the statute required CRF funds to be used for immediate unplanned costs of state, local, territorial, and tribal governments to mitigate the COVID-19 public health emergency,” the spokesperson said. “The deadline cannot be extended by Treasury without an act of Congress.”