The Bay Mills Indian community owns and operates two gaming establishments, including Bay Mills Resort and Casino in Brimley, Michigan. Photo: Bay Mills Resort and Casino

'We keep getting left out': Tribal gaming remains locked out of $349 billion coronavirus relief program

With some Indian Country businesses still locked out of a $349 billion coronavirus relief fund, the Trump administration is finally getting around to consulting tribes about a program that is expected to run out of money before they even have a chance to benefit from it.

The Department of the Treasury launched the Paycheck Protection Program to much fanfare on April 3. Secretary Steve Mnuchin boasted that loans could be approved in less than a day in order to help small businesses -- including those in Indian Country -- stay afloat during the worst public health crisis in decades.

But as Mnuchin, government officials and bank executives have noted, the program is quickly running out of funds. As of Tuesday morning, more than $240 billion has provided to small businesses across America, all while some tribal operations -- mainly those in the gaming sector -- have been shut out.

"All of this stuff is happening and tribes are still not in the mix," Dante Desiderio (Saponny), the executive director of the Native American Finance Officers Association, told Indianz.Com.

"Every day, we keep getting left out," Desiderio said.

With Indian Country in the dark, the Department of the Treasury is finally holding a tribal consultation on the Paycheck Protection Program on Tuesday afternoon. Officials from the Small Business Administration will be on the call but tribes and their advocates fear the Trump administration's efforts are coming too late.

"I'm just concerned that SBA waited this long to fix it," Desiderio said. "Every day that goes by we are getting more and more shut out of that fund."

Key members of Congress are also concerned. They argue that the SBA can easily adjust its guidance in order for small tribal gaming operations -- meaning those with 500 or fewer employees -- can benefit from the $349 billion loan program.

"Tribal gaming enterprises provide thousands of jobs for both native and non-native employees, often in rural areas of the country," three Republicans in the U.S. Senate said in a letter to Secretary Mnuchin on April 7. "Even small gaming operations under 500 employees are frequently among the largest employers in their communities."

Democrats are pushing the Trump administration to make changes as well. They note that the SBA's restrictive guidance is hurting some tribal businesses, such as conference centers and performance venues, that are associated with casinos but not actually offering gambling.

"Tribal governments are unique political entities with a government-to-government relationship with the United States, which owes trust and treaty obligations to all 574 federally recognized Indian tribes," an April 8 letter signed by 12 Democrats in the Senate read. "Congress helps fulfill these obligations in part by passing laws and ensuring access to federal programs for their benefit."

Amid the concern, lawmakers from both parties are committed to providing more funding for the Paycheck Protection Program once the $349 billion runs out. But with the U.S. House of Representatives out of session until at least May, opportunities are running out for Congress to take action before tribes are forced to furlough hundreds of employees. Some in Indian Country have already started doing that after being locked out of loans.

"This is a program that we know is going to need additional money," Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, said in a video address on April 10.

"Frankly, there's no disagreement about that," said Cole.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma): Weekly Chat - April 10, 2020

The Senate has been meeting for daily sessions, though most of the time no work has been taking place. But an effort to add $250 billion was scuttled last week after Republicans, who control the chamber, were unable to come to an agreement with Democrats on the best way to move forward with the legislation.

“Further changes must also be made to the SBA’s assistance initiative, as many eligible small businesses continue to be excluded from the Paycheck Protection Program by big banks with significant lending capacity," Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-California), the Speaker of the House, and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York), who is the Democratic minority leader in the Senate, said in a statement on Monday.

Congress authorized the Paycheck Protection Program through H.R.748, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. The new law, also known as the CARES Act, states that "any qualified small business concern, including those owned by qualified Indian tribes" are eligible for loans.

But the SBA has relied on existing guidance to keep small gaming operations -- tribal and commercial alike -- from participating.

"The National Indian Gaming Association condemns the SBA for its blatant disregard of the Congressional language in the Covid Relief Act," NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. said as the program was launched earlier this month. "The SBA’s guidance fails to recognize the importance of the survival of Tribal Government Gaming for its citizens and non-tribal neighboring residents.

The Bay Mills Indian Community has been among those shut out by the SBA. The tribe's gaming operation in Michigan employs about 400 people who are being paid through April 16.

But without a loan guaranteed by the Paycheck Protection Program, or some other form of assistance, the tribal employees are in danger of being put out of a work, a move that will impact their families and countless others in the region.

“In addition to protecting the public health, we are also committed to taking care of our team members and protecting the Tribe’s long term economic health,” President Bryan Newland said in an update shared on the Bay Mills gaming website. “We are looking at how we can ensure that our team members have the money they need to quarantine effectively.”

As of 2018, the tribal casino industry employed more than 670,000 people, with more than $36 billion in wages paid to employees, according to a comprehensive study released by the American Gaming Association at the time.

Overall, the American gaming industry, including operations in Indian Country, supported a total economic impact of $261.4 billion of output, with 1.8 million jobs and $40.8 billion in tax revenue, according to the AGA.

The tribal consultation on the Paycheck Protection Program will be followed by another one on a different CARES Act program of interest to tribes. The calls are closed to the media. More information can be found on the Indianz.Com COVID-19 section.

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