Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, introduced a bill in the House to extend the spending deadline, but so far it has only been referred to committee.

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, introduced a bill in the House to extend the spending deadline, but so far it has only been referred to committee. Mark Thiessen / AP Photo

Lawmakers Push to Extend Deadline for Alaska Native Corporations to Spend COVID-19 Relief Funds

The Supreme Court ruled in June that these corporations are in fact eligible for the money, but now they are racing to spend it ahead of a December 31 deadline.

Legislation passed in the Senate last week seeks to extend the deadline for tribal groups that represent Native Alaskans to spend their coronavirus relief funds, which were only recently made available to them. However, the House has yet to take up a similar measure. 

The 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act created private, for profit corporations that are owned by Alaska Native shareholders. The corporations are owned by more than 140,000 shareholders and have about 27 million acres of land in Alaska. The CARES Act for coronavirus relief, enacted in March 2020, allotted $8 billion for federally recognized tribal governments, about $500 million of which was set aside for Alaska Native Corporations. But three tribal governments sued, arguing that the corporations were not eligible because they were not tribes formally recognized by the federal government. 

The Supreme Court ruled in June that the tribal groups were in fact eligible for relief funds and now they are racing to spend their money ahead of a December 31 deadline. The application processes went live only about a month ago, The Hill reported.

On October 20, the Senate passed legislation that would extend the deadline a year, among other things related to COVID-19 relief funds. “ANCs are facing a time crunch to get COVID-19 relief dollars out the door. This unnecessary rush is not in the interest of good governance or the people we serve,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, in a press release. “I thank my colleagues for joining us in this effort, which isn’t about spending new federal dollars, but rather granting reasonable flexibility to deploy CARES Act relief in the best interests of our constituents, whose lives, businesses and communities have been upended by the pandemic.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, noted that “Alaska has been leading the nation in positive cases per capita, and sadly our state also recently logged the nation’s highest rates for COVID-19 fatalities on a per capita basis.” She urged the House to pass this legislation expeditiously.

Sullivan introduced a bill in September that Murkowski and three Democrats co-sponsored for the extension, which was incorporated into a larger bill that the Senate passed last week by unanimous consent. 

Reps. Don Young, R-Alaska, and Tom O’Halleran, D-Ariz., introduced in August a companion bill to that initial legislation, which would also extend the deadline a year. 

“The CARES Act was an essential piece of legislation that came at a critical time. But for all assistance it provided for Alaska Native and Native American communities, bureaucratic red tape has delayed the disbursement of these critically needed funds,” said Young, who is the congressman for all of Alaska, in a press release. “Our First Peoples were hit hard by the pandemic, and without adequate time to utilize these funds, their recovery becomes more difficult.” So far the bill has just been referred to committee. The House lawmakers’ offices did not respond for comment by the time of this article’s publication. 

“Alaska Native regional and village corporations are working around the clock to ensure all CARES Act funds received by our organizations are fully realized and deliver meaningful, lasting improvements for the people, services and communities who need them most,” Kim Reitmeier, executive director of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act Regional Association, told Government Executive before the Senate’s passage of the bill. “We are also prioritizing the responsible distribution of funds, and compliance with all Department of Treasury requirements.”

She added that, “Because most Alaska Native Corporations didn’t receive relief funds until August or later of this year, we continue to seek a spending extension from Congress to account for extreme delays to the global supply chain, disproportionately high infection rates in Alaska and the strain on our rural social support services.”

Sealaska, one of the corporations, said in a post on October 5 that “there were a few factors” as to why it took so long to set up the program. 

“Because Sealaska has never administered a program like this before, it took us some time to identify the best path forward in working with the [Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska],” a federally recognized tribe, said the post. “Once the partnership was formed, we had to create the application mechanism within MySealaska. Perhaps most time consuming, we had to hire people to field and approve applications and get them trained before we could start accepting applications.”

A spokesperson for the Treasury Department told Government Executive the department has held various information sessions for the Alaska Native Corporations to learn about CARES Act payments. The department is also working to expedite responses to questions from the corporations. Only Congress can allow for an extension, the spokesperson added. 

Allocation of funds has been another issue. KTOO reported in September that data from the CARES Act shows disparities in payments.

“Staff at a number of Native corporations said they didn’t understand exactly how the formula worked,” said the report. “But corporations with more shareholders didn’t necessarily get more money.” 

While “Village corporations have been seeking an explanation from the Treasury Department,” they haven’t gotten a satisfactory explanation, Nathan McCowan, chair of the Alaska Native Village Corporation Association, told KTOO.

Overall, the Supreme Court’s ruling “preserves ANCs’ status and ability to participate in government contracting and compacting and provide programs and services to Alaska Natives,” wrote Anna Chapman Crary, associate at the law firm Landye Bennett Blumstein LLP who specializes in Alaska Native law. “However, the decision may also spur debate over whether, in light of the Court’s reasoning, ANCs now have expanded eligibility for some federal Indian programs and services previously reserved to federally recognized tribes.” 

Alaska Native Corporations have been scrutinized over the years for the privileges they have in federal contracting.