Osage officials begin debate on spending ARPA funds

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

Osage Nation officials began to air their views last week regarding the appropriate uses of American Rescue Plan Act money that the tribal government will be able to spend, as well as about the appropriate timing of spending decisions.

The Osage Nation has already received notification of federal support through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) in an amount slightly greater than $108 million. This comes in addition to more than $40 million the Osage government was awarded through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) of 2020.

Four members of the 12-member Osage Nation Congress issued a joint statement June 2, calling for the tribal government to use a portion of the $108 million already awarded under ARPA to make direct payments to Osage citizens, both those who live in Osage County and those who live elsewhere. There are nearly 23,000 Osage citizens, in total. 

Congressmen Billy Keene, John Maker, Eli Potts and Joe Tillman signed onto the joint statement. In the statement, Tillman commented that, “If we gave half of our allocation, instead of letting the Chief and the Osage bureaucracy tell them what we’re going to spend it on, that’s putting the needs of the Osage People first."

"That’s giving every Osage citizen $2,300 dollars, and we’d still have more than the annual amount we get from gaming, and more than (the) total amount the Nation received from the CARES Act. That’s a plan I could get behind," TIllman added.

Geoffrey Standing Bear, Principal Chief of the Osage Nation

Keene made reference in the joint statement to reports that other tribal governments were deciding to use ARPA money to issue direct payments to their citizens.

“If all these other tribes are making it a priority to deliver direct aid in the form of distribution checks to their people, it’s imperative the Osage Nation make that happen as well," Keene said. "It’s not time for us to be so risk-averse and wait, while other tribes, with consultants and lawyers too, already have the green light.”

The statement by Keene, Maker, Potts and Tillman sparked a response the next day from Paula Stabler, also a member of the Osage Congress. Stabler argued that there are parameters set out in the guidelines for the expenditure of ARPA funds that legally prevent a general distribution of direct payments.

Stabler argued that the guidelines establish that "funds must be in response to the disease itself (COVID-19) or the harmful consequences of the economic disruption exacerbated by COVID." Stabler clarified that she thinks ARPA money represents a great opportunity for tribal governments and looks forward to seeing the Osage Nation's funds used to serve the Osage people.

Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear also entered the discussion, noting in part that he sensed political opponents were trying to score points.

"My political opposition is trying to get ahead because they've been so far behind," Standing Bear told the Journal-Capital by telephone. Separately, in a prepared statement, he argued that his administration has been supportive of direct payments to Osage citizens.

"The Osage Nation Individual Assistance Program is not a new idea," Standing Bear said in a statement. "Last year our program distributed nearly $13 million to Osages everywhere. This program has used funding from the federal CARES Act of 2020. We supplemented the program with money from our casinos. Over 14,000 Osages benefited. 

"The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) provides new opportunity for Osage individual assistance," Standing Bear said. "We are moving forward with plans first developed in January. Since then, the United States Treasury interim rules appear to require proof that anyone receiving payments actually experienced a COVID caused negative economic impact. Once the final federal rules are issued the Osage Nation Individual Assistance Program new funding from ARPA will be requested from the Osage Nation Congress by my Administration."

Standing Bear referred further questions to James Weigant, COVID Task Force Coordinator for the Osage Nation.

Potts replied to Standing Bear's statement, questioning how the administration could have been making plans as early as January, given that ARPA wasn't introduced as a draft in Congress until February and didn't become U.S. law until March.

"It's unfortunate that the chief has labeled and continues to label members of Congress as political opponents -- we should be working together," Potts said. He recalled that Standing Bear had presented a plan to spend $115 million and had not mentioned direct assistance to Osage citizens as an element of that plan.

"In addition, others in Congress expressed that they had been working with the Chief and it was their belief that direct assistance to the people was not allowed," Potts said. He went on to express concern that "somewhere the signals are crossed."

Weigant told the Journal-Capital that the Osage Nation had been interested from the beginning in whether direct aid to citizens would be authorized under the terms of ARPA.

"It is proven, Indian Country has suffered worse than the general public," Weigant said, asserting that the need for direct support to citizens is clearly present.

"That's what we wanted to see. That's what we looked for," Weigant said, clarifying that the Osage government had an intense interest in locating language in the federal ARPA guidelines that would permit direct payments. That language was not there, he said.

Instead, Weigant said the federal guidelines clearly directed funding recipients to consider whether, and to what extent, individuals suffered COVID-19 related losses.

Weigant said the Osage Nation is waiting for the final federal rules on the money to be issued.

"We want to avoid paying back any of this money," Weigant said. He reiterated that he understands the individual need that motivates support for direct payments.

"There is a need," he said. "I understand that need."

In a special session that ended in late May, the Osage Nation Congress unanimously passed a measure to require that ARPA money go through a tribal legislative appropriations process. Standing Bear approved that legislation.