The headquarters of the Native American Bank in Denver, Colorado. Photo: Bridget Dvorak / Native American Bank

'Finally': Tribal gaming in line for coronavirus relief amid stiff competition for resources

As Indian Country continues to fight for its share of coronavirus resources, tribes are finally seeing some good news come out of Washington, D.C.

The Small Business Administration on Friday confirmed that small Indian gaming operations qualify for loans through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). The announcement, which has been sought for weeks, enables tribes to tap into a source of funding they were denied due to a lack of clarity from the Trump administration.

"We are happy about this change," President Bryan Newland of the Bay Mills Indian Community told Indianz.Com.

Bay Mills was working closely with a bank in Michigan to secure a loan backed by the Paycheck Protection Program after the Department of the Treasury opened the application process on April 3. But conflicting guidance from the nation's capital prevented the tribe from securing the funds, putting the jobs of about 400 people in jeopardy.

"Treasury's new rules comply with the law and the trust responsibility," Newland said on Friday. "It allows us to bring back many of our employees, and to have them on staff to prepare for our next steps."

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

While tribes waited for the Trump administration to take action, they saw the original $349 billion set aside for the program run dry. The money ran out after just 14 days, indicating that Indian Country is facing steep competition as a second round comes in courtesy of the U.S. Congress.

"It is great to see the SBA open the eligibility," Dante Desiderio (Saponny), the executive director of the Native American Finance Officers Association, told Indianz.Com.

"However, the backlog for funding is significant and we are disappointed that it has taken so long and hoping tribes can still take advantage of the program," Desiderio said as NAFOA wrapped up itsfirst virtual conference, held after the coronavirus scuttled an in-person meeting this month.

Key members of Congress are also hailing the change. Sen. Martha McSally (R-Arizona), a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, has been pressing the Trump administration to update the program guidelines.

“Finally," McSally said on Friday. "This is a huge victory for our tribal communities and the many tribal and non-tribal employees who rely on tribal gaming enterprises for their livelihood."

“This lifeline should have been available to our small tribal gaming enterprises from the very beginning due to the language I helped secure in the CARES Act," McSally said of the bipartisan Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, the law that authorized the program almost a month ago.

"I’ve been insistent on this change to the SBA’s PPP guidance for weeks so it is great to see tribal gaming enterprises finally included in the program," the lawmaker said. "Now, we need the CARES Act relief allocated for tribal communities distributed immediately.”

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona). Photo by Keerthi Vedantam / Cronkite News
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) welcomed the change as well. Arizona is home to more than two dozens tribal gaming operations of all sizes, and all have been shut down in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“I’ve heard directly from tribal leaders in Arizona about the economic struggles facing their communities during the coronavirus outbreak," Sinema, who is the state's senior senator, said. "The federal government’s exclusion of gaming operations from critical coronavirus-relief funds was unacceptable."

And Sen. John Hoeven (D-North Dakota), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said the new guidance reflects what lawmakers intended when they wrote the bill last month.

"When we drafted the tribal provision of the CARES Act, we intended that all tribally owned businesses be eligible for PPP,” Hoeven said.

Despite the policy victory, there are big questions as the PPP gets an influx of $320 billion a new COVID-19 relief bill. H.R.6201, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, cleared the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday with a bipartisan vote of 363 to 40. The U.S. Senate passed the measure on Wednesday by a vote of 90 to 8.

Tribes, for example, don't know if they are going to see benefits from the new package, which President Donald Trump signed into law on Friday afternoon, "immediately" as McSally insisted. There are no provisions to ensure those who have been waiting, such as Bay Mills, will get priority after being cut out during the first round of funding so tribes might have to get in line all over again for the money.

PPP loans are available to any small tribal business, which typically means those with less than 500 employees. NAFOA, which has been pushing for new guidance for the last two weeks, is urging tribes to work with local providers, or with the Native American Bank, a nationally-chartered institution. The organization also recommends Native owned banks and Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) that work with Indian Country.

“There’s an enormous need to support Native American businesses and jobs during this unprecedented time, and we are honored our communities are turning to us for help in securing their future,” said Tom Ogaard, President and CEO of Native American Bank. “In the 14 days available for funding in the first round of PPP, we took applications for as much loan volume as we ordinarily see in an entire year."

"We are here to help," Ogaard said.

The Native American Bank, headquartered in Denver, Colorado, facilitated 60 PPP loans before the money ran out. Of those, 73 percent went to Native-owned businesses, resulting in nearly $16 million flowing to those enterprises. That accounted for 90 percent of the bank's successful and unprecedented efforts

The Ute Tribe was among the beneficiaries. Ute Tribal Enterprises, the economic development arm on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in northeastern Utah, secured loans ranging from $34,000 to $970,000 with Native American Bank's help.

“Ute Tribal Enterprise wishes to express our appreciation to Native American Bank in processing the SBA Paycheck Protection Program applications for our eight businesses in such a timely, efficient and professional manner," said said Valentina Sireech, the Chief Executive Officer for Ute Tribal Enterprises. "This is enabling us to retain our employees and is blessing the lives of over 230 families."

The new guidance was issued as an interim final rule on Friday. It comes 10 days after the SBA held the first and only consultation with tribes about the PPP. The call took place two days before the original $349 billion ran out.

"A business that is otherwise eligible for a PPP Loan is not rendered ineligible due to its receipt of legal gaming revenues," the guidance issued by Administrator Jovita Carranza reads.

"On further consideration, the Administrator, in consultation with the Secretary, believes this approach is more consistent with the policy aim of making PPP loans available to a broad segment of U.S. businesses," it continues.

According to Alan Meister, an expert on the Indian and commercial gaming industries, every tribe has had to shut down their casino in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

"These closures are causing significant detriment to Native American tribes, many of which rely heavily on gaming related revenue to pay for tribal government operations, infrastructure, and social and economic programs and services for a Native American population that is already substantially disadvantaged," Meister's economic consulting firm states on its website.

WE ARE UTE- We are strong together!!! Help Stop COVID-19

Posted by Ute Tribal Enterprises, LLC on Friday, April 24, 2020

The impacts are immense, as tribes and their enterprises are often the largest employers in their regions. During just the first month of the shutdown alone, Meister's team estimated a huge direct and indirect hit to the U.S. economy: $8.7 billion in lost economic activity, 728,000 people unable to work, $1.9 billion in lost wages and $1.3 billion in lost taxes and revenue sharing among the federal, state and local governments.

For the tribal casinos alone, the firm estimated $3.0 billion in lost economic activity, 296,000 people out of work, $665 million in lost wages and $481 million in lost taxes and revenue among wages and $1.3 billion in lost taxes and revenue sharing among federal, state and local governments. Meister's team is updating the figures every two weeks.

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, which is among those welcoming the new Paycheck Protection Program guideilnes.

"In the nearly one month since the CARES Act was enacted to provide economic relief to blunt the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the American Gaming Association and our allies have fought tirelessly to correct the Small Business Administration’s antiquated policy that precluded gaming companies from qualifying for loans through the Paycheck Protection Program," President and CEO Bill Miller said on Friday. "We are pleased that the new regulatory guidelines released today make small gaming companies eligible for this critical program just as Congress has replenished its funding."

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