Interview with Stacy Bohlen and Aaron Payment

Thank you for joining us for a very special live interview with Stacy Bohlen, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, and Dr. Aaron Payment, first vice president of the National Congress of American Indians. Kevin Abourezk is our host tonight. Another special guest will be joining us tonight, a young tribal leader who was recently diagnosed with COVID-19 but is feeling well enough tonight to join us and share her story.

Posted by Indianz.Com on Wednesday, April 1, 2020
Indianz.Com: Interview with Aaron Payment, Stacy Bohlen and Myra Pickering

'We need clarification now': Indian gaming industry being shut out of coronavirus relief program

With the $33.7 billion Indian gaming industry at a standstill in the midst of the worst public health crisis in decades, tribal casino operations are in danger of being left out of a major coronavirus relief program.

The Trump administration on Friday morning began accepting applications for the new Paycheck Protection Program. But conflicting guidelines issued by the Small Business Administration the day prior are preventing tribes from accessing billions of dollars in funds that would enable them to keep thousands of casino workers on their payrolls.

"We need clarification now," Dante Desiderio (Saponny), the executive director of the Native American Finance Officers Association, told Indianz.Com.

The matter is extremely time sensitive. The Paycheck Protection Program is open to millions of small businesses across America, and the fear is that Indian Country won't get a fair shot with the guidelines affecting tribal gaming operations in dispute.

"They need to clarify this for tribes," Desiderio said.

Some tribes already started working with lending institutions in hopes of securing backing through the Paycheck Protection Program. But the uncertainty from Washington, D.C., has put a hold on efforts to keep their economies -- which are often the major driver in their regions -- up and running amid the coronavirus crisis.

"We want to keep our employees, and we want them to keep the health insurance we provide," President Bryan Newland of the Bay Mills Indian Community told Indianz.Com. "It is going to be a real challenge if we can't access paycheck protection loans like other businesses can."

The impact is significant in Indian Country. Newland said a loan covered by the Paycheck Protection Program would enable the tribe to continue paying 400 gaming employees -- including benefits, such as health care, that have become even more critical during the pandemic -- for at least the next two months in Michigan.

"The new guidance has upended our plan, leaving us to scramble for answers with one week left in our pay period," said Newland.

The exclusion of gaming operations from the Paycheck Protection Program is also of national importance. The American Gaming Association blamed outdated and "discriminatory" regulations in Washington that will hurt "hundreds of thousands" of people unless the Trump administration changes course.

“This decision will affect hard-working Americans from Pennsylvania to Nevada, Ohio to Colorado, and everywhere in between who need and deserve the same level of support as anyone across the country during these unprecedented times," President and CEO Bill Miller said in a statement on Friday, calling on Jovita Carranza, the head of the Small Business Administration, to take action before it's too late.

The conflicting information from the executive branch comes after Congress, through H.R.748, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, authorized the Paycheck Protection Program. The bipartisan law set aside $349 billion for small businesses to stay afloat during the crisis, which has already put millions of Americans out of work.

But while the application for the program states that loans are available to any "tribal business" leaders and advocates in Indian Country found out that a pre-existing definition -- buried elsewhere in thousands of pages of federal regulations -- excludes gaming establishments.

"It is really a big deal," Desiderio told Indianz.Com. "This is the relief that tribes needed."

The Trump administration has pitched the "unprecedented" program as a way for small businesses to secure loans quickly in a time of crisis. Administrator Carranza, who has addressed tribes at meetings like the National Congress of American Indians and previously represented the Department of the Treasury on the Tribal Advisory Committee, announced outlines on Tuesday.

“Speed is the operative word; applications for the emergency capital can begin as early as this week, with lenders using their own systems and processes to make these loans," Carranza said in a news release. "We remain committed to supporting our nation’s more than 30 million small businesses and their employees, so that they can continue to be the fuel for our nation’s economic engine.”

Secretary of the Treasury Steven T. Mnuchin also boasted that Paycheck Protection Program loans could be "approved on the same day" as paperwork being submitted.

It wasn't until Thursday, however, when the "interim" guidelines were released by official Washington. That happened to be the same day the Bay Mills Indian Community began putting together its loan application with a local bank, President Newland said.

The SBA, where Shawn Pensoneau, a citizen of the Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma, serves as the Assistant Administrator for the Office of Native American Affairs, is set to discuss the conflicting guidance on Friday, according to advocates. A request for comment about the Paycheck Protection Program and tribal casinos has been placed with the agency.

According to the National Indian Gaming Association, 100 percent of casinos run by member tribes have closed as a result of the coronavirus. Some have laid off employees while others are keeping them on the payroll as long as possible.

“Kewadin Casinos is a committed community partner and, as such, we take our responsibility in assisting the stop of coronavirus seriously,” Allen Kerridge, the interim chief executive officer of the gaming enterprise for the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, the largest Indian nation east of the Mississippi. Kerridge said the tribe continues to pay 900 full-time and part-time employees at five establishments in Michigan.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is in a more precarious situation. Workers at the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort and the Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino and Hotel in North Carolina are only set to be paid through April 15, with furloughs for the "majority of employees" set to kick in on the following day, the operation said on Wednesday.

"Furloughed employees will continue to receive medical benefits which will be provided and paid for by the company through reopening or June 30, whichever comes first," Harrah's Cherokee Casinos said in a statement. June 30 happens to be the final date for which the loans obtained through the Paycheck Protection Program can be used to cover payroll costs.

A message from Brian Parrish, Interim CEO Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise.

Posted by Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise on Wednesday, April 1, 2020

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.

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