Navajo council rejects asking voters whether to spend permanent 7-07

By FELICIA FONSECA
WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. (AP) - The Navajo Nation Council has rejected a bill that would have
asked voters whether to spend money from a nearly $1 billion trust fund to build jails and
courts.

The bill's sponsor, Kee Allen Begay, appeared nervous Wednesday as he introduced the first
legislation calling for a referendum related to the Permanent Fund.

One delegate said Begay had a lot of courage bringing up the issue, but the council
ultimately voted 46-27 against the measure. It would have required 59 votes, or two-thirds
of the council, to pass.

The fund was developed in 1985 to replenish lost revenues from coal, timber, oil and gas.
Under Navajo law, it was to remain untouched until last fall.

Begay, a second-term delegate, questioned how the Navajo people benefit if available money
is not being used to address their needs.

“This is a good example of our Navajo Nation government taking away the right of the people
to get involved in their government,” he said. “If they're so inclined to keep the money in
there, how are they helping the people?”

Begay faced widespread opposition from former Navajo leader Peterson Zah, whose
administration established the fund - some council delegates and the president's office, who
argued that the fund should be left alone until it reaches $1 billion. It's expected to
later this year.

The bill would have approved $244,000 for a referendum asking voters whether they support
using $153 million from the principal of the fund for jails and courts. As the law is
written, only the interest from the fund - about $17 million a year - is available for use.

Council delegates would have to waive tribal laws to dip into the principal.

A work group created by the council conducted public hearings in 2002-03 and found that a
majority of the people favored not spending the money.

Any idea on how to use the money would have to be approved by two-thirds of registered
Navajo voters.

Delegate Raymond Maxx suggested it is too soon to question Navajo people on the fund.
“What are we going to do, keep asking them the same question over and over again,” he asked.
“We already have the people's word.”

But Delegate Katherine Benally saw the referendum as an opportunity.

“What is wrong with involving our people in their government?” she asked. “That should be
something we're encouraging.”

If the issue was voted down, the council would heed the message, she said.

Other delegates claimed Begay hadn't done his research and that an expenditure plan -
required to expend the fund - wasn't in place so that Navajo people could make an informed
decision.

Begay said the council was jumping ahead of itself.

“Is there a plan in place?” he asked. “That's not the question. If they are saying there's
no plan, why haven't they developed a plan?”

Legislation to approve a five-year expenditure plan was deleted from the council's agenda
Monday because it hadn't been updated since it was tabled from the fall session.

On the south side of the council chamber, Zah sat with his arms crossed listening intently
to the arguments presented by the council. He was in the tribal capital this week to lobby
against the use of the fund.

Building jails is not progress for the nation and does not address what lands people in
jail, he said.

“That's not the answer to the alcoholism problem, and the lawlessness on the reservation is
bigger than just simply building jails,” he said.

The fund grew as a result of a court decision that authorized the tribe to tax companies
that extract minerals from Navajo land. 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.

Begay said he turned to the fund as one of many avenues to address public safety and
judicial issues.

“I'll just prepare to see another legislation in the fall semester and throughout the term I
have,” he said.

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