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Use of $1 billion trust fund among topics for Navajo council next 7-07

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Officials of the Navajo Nation are looking at a pot of gold.

On the reservation the size of West Virginia, where most roads are unpaved, residents haul their drinking water and half of workers can't find jobs, $1 billion could go a long way.

The amount is enough, President Joe Shirley Jr. says, to meet the needs of the Navajo people.

The source is the Permanent Fund - developed in 1985 to replenish lost revenues from coal, timber, oil and gas. The fund is causing quite a stir among Navajo officials who have a shot this year at using the money. Some want the fund to continue growing; others say there's no reason to leave it untouched.

Under tribal law, the funds could not be harvested until last fall.

"Everyone pretty much expected this gold rush, and now we have to manage it," said Shirley's spokesman, George Hardeen.

Shirley has urged against its immediate use as has Peterson Zah, the former tribal leader whose administration established the fund.

Zah has been campaigning against raiding the fund and likely will try to block legislation in the Tribal Council next week to clear the first hurdle in accessing the money - a five-year expenditure plan.

The legislation was tabled last year because the dates on the document were outdated; the measure still seeks the approval of the plan for fiscal years 2005-2010.

While only the interest - about $17 million a year - can be used from the fund under tribal law, some people want the council to waive that law and dip into the principal.

Zah said that he does not want the money frivolously spent. The Navajo people should decide how the funds are spent, and tribal leaders need to work with them, not for them, he said.

"I think there are too many times when we think we have the answers to the Navajo problems," he said in an interview Wednesday. "But at the same time, we really don't. Those kinds of things have to come from the Navajo people."

Hardeen said it's a generalized concern that council will raid the fund.

"You hear that at the flea market, people talk about it, and we don't want to see that happen," he said. "Even though they have good intentions and they're serving their constituents, this trust fund is for the entire Navajo Nation."

One council delegate, Kee Allen Begay, is proposing that the tribe use $153 million from the fund to build new jails and courts - a dire need for the tribe since it has only about 80 bed spaces to house inmates.

He has introduced legislation in next week's session to spend $244,000 on a special referendum that will require a two-thirds vote of the council to pass.

Begay's and any other idea on how to spend the trust fund money then must be approved by a two-thirds vote of registered Navajo voters.

"If the people oppose it and say, 'leave it alone,' then of course I'll move on," Begay said.

For now, Begay questions the reason people don't want to spend the money if it's available.

It's similar to "having the kids starve at home, no clothes on the table, yet the parents have so much money in the bank, but they don't want to use it," he says.

LoRenzo Bates, chairman of the council's Budget and Finance Committee said he would rather the council look further ahead and develop a 10- or 15-year plan.

The three branch chiefs - Tribal Council Speaker Lawrence Morgan, Shirley and Chief Justice Herb Yazzie - must determine the needs of the Navajo Nation and see what resources are available, Bates said.

"We all have our priorities but we don't have our priorities in terms of being united, and that creates a problem," he said.

More than 20 years ago, the Navajo Nation won a court battle against Kerr McGee that ruled the tribe has the authority to tax companies that extract minerals from Navajo land. All coal, pipeline, oil and gas leases were renegotiated, which increased the royalty payments to the tribe.

At the beginning, $26 million went into the Permanent Fund, and each year, 12 percent of all revenues received annually by the tribe were added to the pot. Under tribal law, 95 percent of the fund's interest can be spent, with five percent to be reinvested.

The fund hasn't quite reached $1 billion, but it is projected to later this year.

Zah said he considers himself "extremely lucky" to have worked with leaders who helped develop the fund.

"It was a group that was purely dedicated to serving the Navajo people, and that was their satisfaction, that was their goal," he said.

Bates agreed, and said for the Zah administration to envision the needs and growth of the tribe exhibited "true leadership."

But the questions remains that if those needs match today's, Bates said.

"Right now that is not in place, so it's upon us as the current leaders, to say 'these are the needs of Navajo (now) and in the future,"' he said.

Among other items the council will consider during its summer session that begins Monday:

-A $22 million appropriation to be divided among the 110 chapter houses.

-A nearly $4.8 million grant to the Navajo Housing Authority to cover a shortfall in the construction of 56 houses for Navajo veterans.

-A measure to extend the terms of office for council delegates from four to six years.

-Legislation to give Shirley a line item veto.