Homes at Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico. Photo: Kathy Knorr

Bill that hit stumbling block returns without tribal labor sovereignty provision

A bill to help the White Mountain Apache Tribe with a critical drinking water project and two Pueblo tribes with economic development efforts has been revived after being stripped of a poison provision.

In April, the Senate blocked the Indian package from moving forward because it contained the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act. The controversial measure would have recognized tribal sovereignty over labor unions, resulting in a clash between Republicans and Democrats that left the Apache and Pueblo tribes in limbo.

But two months later, the Apache and Pueblo tribes are back on the agenda. The water project and economic development components have been revived in S.2850, only this time there is nothing for them to worry about.

The new measure in fact is quickly on track to becoming law in the 115th Congress. S.2850 passed the Senate last Wednesday by unanimous consent -- there was no debate whatsoever, a sign of the non-controversial nature of the bill

And S.2850 is due to pass the House later on Monday, according to the Majority Leader's schedule. It's being considered under a suspension of the rules, a process typically used for non-controversial bills.

Joe Tohonnie Jr. and the White Mountain Apache Crown Dancers. Photo: KrisNM

The Apache provision ensures the tribe can move forward with a critical drinking water project on its reservation in Arizona. Timing has been called essential.

"The White Mountain settlement includes an enforceability date that means if this water system project is not completely approved by May 2021, it becomes void," Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), the sponsor of S.2850, said during debate on the more controversial bill back in April. "In order to realistically meet this deadline, this bill must pass as soon as possible so the tribe has the time to complete the necessary project studies."

The Pueblo provision ensures that Ohkay Owingeh and the Pueblo of Santa Clara can lease their lands in northern New Mexico for up 99 years for economic development and other purposes. While not as time sensitive, Congress has easily enacted similar legislation for other tribes in the past.

The Apache bill was previously introduced as S.140 while the Pueblo bill was S.249. Both cleared the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs early on in the 115th Congress and both passed the Senate on the same day in May 2017.

Each measure could have been taken up individually in the House but Republicans in that chamber decided to put them together and throw S.63, better known as the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act, into the mix. Although they were easily able to pass the loaded-up version of S.140, it stalled in the more closely-divided Senate.

“We will be back,” President Jefferson Keel of the National Congress of American Indians said after the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act sunk the package. Tribes have been seeking for more than a decade to be treated in the same manner as states and local governments when it comes to labor laws.

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