JAC cuts Tribal Liaison budget, sets rules for money’s returnBy Ron Feemster — March 11, 2014
Long-simmering tensions between the Wind River Indian Reservation tribes and Gov. Matt Mead’s office boiled over into outright conflict last month when the tribes learned that the Joint Appropriations Committee decided to temporarily cut the governor’s budget for Tribal Liaisons.
Mead requested $100,000 per tribe per year for the 2015-16 biennium budget, the same amount as in the previous biennium, but JAC cut the funding to zero for the second year at the request of Sen. Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), co-chairman of the committee.
Tribal Liaisons are independent contractors paid through a $100,000 per year contract between the governor and each tribe. Sara Robinson serves as liaison between the Eastern Shoshones and the governor. Gary Collins plays the same role for the Northern Arapaho tribe.
Bebout’s committee made restoring the money to the governor’s budget conditional on the governor developing “a list of deliverables for the tribal liaisons prior to the expenditure of any funds in this line item.”
According to Bebout and the governor’s spokesman, Renny MacKay, issues related to the tribes’ billing and reimbursement surfaced last summer. But the tribes say they did not hear about the budget changes until the legislative session started in February.
The House quickly passed a budget amendment that restored the funding and added deliverables, a set of goals for communication between the governor and the tribes. But the Senate divided the budget amendment, approving the deliverables but removing the $200,000 from the 2016 budget.
“I didn’t want the $200,000 in there,” Bebout said. “That’s why I asked to remove it. Because I think the way to get it done is the way we set it up. Do those deliverables. Perform. Do like you’re supposed to do. Come back and ask for a supplemental budget request and everybody’s happy.”
Not everyone is happy with Bebout’s explanation.
“The timing couldn’t be worse,” said Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander), co-chair of the Select Committee on Tribal Relations. “Given the issue with Riverton, you couldn’t have picked a worse time to do it.”
Case was referring to the Environmental Protection Agency’s ruling in favor of the tribes’ application for Treatment as State under the Clean Air Act. As part of the ruling, the EPA defined the boundaries of the reservation to encompass long disputed territory, including the city of Riverton, which Bebout represents.
The EPA ruling came down on Dec. 6, a Friday. JAC began its final weeks of budget meetings prior to the legislative session the following week. The money was removed during those meetings, but Bebout said the Liaison budget and the EPA ruling were separate issues.
“This is something that was going on long before EPA made that outrageous statement,” Bebout said. “They’re our neighbors. We want to work with them. But like with any other taxpayer dollars, there are certain demands and outcomes we expect. That’s what it’s about.”
Bebout and the Senate would appear to stand alone, however. The House passed an amendment to restore the money. And the governor requested a full two-year appropriation and, according to MacKay, stands by that request. People on the reservation have a hard time divorcing the liaison issue from the conflict over reservation boundaries.
“It’s perception,” said Patrick Goggles (D-Ethete). “Those of us on the tribal side will see it as punitive. You know how possession is 90 percent of the law? Well, perception is 90 percent of the perception. We are not going to see it Bebout’s way. But we’ll deal with it.”
Lobbying or education?
Robinson’s outspoken and opinionated style has rubbed some people the wrong way. A lawyer who worked as a public defender, she is not one to mince words. Some people wondered if her strong views about Medicaid expansion on the reservation were appropriate to the position. Others have questioned whether the state is paying for tribal lobbyists.
Robinson and Collins, for their part, see the job as walking a fine line between education and advocacy.
“People don’t understand how Indian Health Service is funded,” Robinson said. “So they don’t understand what Medicaid means for us. If the people of Wyoming understood the reservation and the tribes better, we would not have to do so much education.”
Although he did not like the budget cut, Goggles did not fight Bebout on the measure. He advised the liaisons to try and understand and meet the conditions that Bebout laid down, so that the money could be restored.
“He’s the chairman of the Joint Appropriations Committee and I’m pretty sure he has the authority to do this,” Goggles said. “It’s a contract. You have goals and deliverables. If I were putting up all the funding I would require reporting. The second year it will be brought back. The governor indicated that he will ask for it in the supplemental budget.”
Robinson said she felt blindsided by the budget cut. If the discussions were going on all summer, why had she not heard about them then, Robinson wondered.
“I didn’t know that they had cut our budget until I arrived at the legislature and heard about it from other legislators,” she said. “I think I would have known about it if there were discussions going on.”
Robinson, who started the job in January 2013, says she was in the habit of calling Tony Young, Mead’s deputy, to ask if she could spend money or take actions. She estimates that she made five or six such calls in her first year on the job.
“Tony always said, ‘If the Eastern Shoshone Business Council approves it, I won’t interfere,’” Robinson said. Robinson purchased furniture for her office in Fort Washakie and paid bonuses totaling about $4,000 to tribal staff members who helped her get up to speed on the 15 contracts between the tribe and the state.
When she submitted the invoices to the governor’s office for reimbursement they were not paid.
“We didn’t understand that,” Robinson said. “I always called and asked. Tony always said the same thing. Then they wouldn’t pay the bills.”
MacKay declined to make Young available for an interview and referred questions about the invoices to Administration & Information, the branch of state government responsible for paying such invoices.
“The governor wants the money back in there,” said MacKay. “We feel like we are in a good position with the tribes.”
Dean Fausett, director of A&I, said his agency agrees, roughly at least, with the numbers that Robinson and the Eastern Shoshones report when it comes to unpaid invoices. The tribe has submitted invoices of about $16,000 that were paid. But about $40,000 worth were not paid.
“Some have been delayed,” Fausett said. “Some have been denied. Denied is the right word.” There are three basic problems with the invoices that have not been paid, he said. Some invoiced items that the state cannot pay for. Some invoices lack appropriate documentation. Others came in too late to be paid.
“We attempt to pay every invoice,” Fausett said. “In some cases we would leave the invoice open as we request appropriate documentation.”
Fausett said that furniture bills and invoices that could have been for the bonuses were among the unpaid invoices.
For Robinson and Collins, one issue is clarity of expectations. “I think part of the problem is that you could look at this contract as a block grant,” Collins said. “The tribes are pretty free to decide how to spend money on a block grant. But the state does not see it that way.” Fausett said most Northern Arapaho invoices came in on time and were paid.
Robinson feels that she should have gotten better information from Young, who, she says, did not warn her about any potential problems with the invoices she submitted.
Meeting with Mead
Many of the problems got straightened out when Robinson, Collins and representatives from tribal government met with Bebout, Young and the governor for lunch on March 3, according to tribal people who were at the meeting.
“We met with the governor on the Tribal Liaison and administrative things,” said Goggles. “We worked out some things about reimbursement and reporting. I think we all got on the same page about the issues of reimbursement and documentation.”
That said, the situation remains roughly the same. The money was appropriated for the second year, but it went to the state auditor’s office. The auditor and the governor will have to report to JAC before the second-year funds will be released. Meanwhile, both sides have work to do.
“There’s some education that needs to happen,” Goggles said, referring to the governor’s side but also to the tribal finance offices. “June 30 there’s a sweep. If those funds aren’t spent, they go back into the General Fund.
“Both tribes have had administrative capacity issues,” Goggles continued. “People have left and others have come. When people leave they take the institutional knowledge with them. You need to get into a timing sync. You need someone who has a clock in his head. You need to be proactive and get the reimbursements done on time.”
Bebout, who reportedly said little at the meeting, thinks holding onto the money will help everyone work together.
“It’s the way you get people’s attention,” Bebout said. “It’s a one year appropriation. There’s some requirements in there for what we expect and want them to do. I’ve talked to them. They said not a problem. So I would anticipate we get it in a position where everybody feels good about what the money’s for and what they’re supposed to do.”
The other alternative for the tribes is to turn down the governor’s money. Case, the co-chair with Goggles of the Select Committee on Tribal Relations, said the liaison positions worked best in earlier administrations when the tribes and the governor shared the cost. Goggles does not disagree. “The tribe could consider funding a portion of the positions,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly attributed the following quote to Renny MacKay, spokesman for Gov. Matt Mead: “There were people wondering if the state should be paying for a tribal lobbyist.” MacKay did not make that statement.
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