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Native corporations face deadline for federal relief funds

December 8, 2021 GMT

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Alaska Native corporations face a year-end deadline to use federal coronavirus relief funds that the U.S. Supreme Court in late June ruled they were entitled to receive.

But some corporations have yet to receive funds and others face challenges distributing money they have received, said Hallie Bissett, executive director of the Alaska Native Village Corporation Association. She said there have been administrative issues, and documentation requirements in some cases created confusion.

She also cited challenges in setting up websites, application processes or other infrastructure to handle and distribute funds, particularly for corporations with limited staff or in areas with “basic to nonexistent” internet service.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury began making payments to Alaska Native corporations in early August, according to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The department, in a statement provided to The Associated Press, said 99% of funds to Native corporations had been disbursed and it was in communication with the remaining eligible corporations on whether they planned to accept funds.

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U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, an Alaska Republican, in October called the upcoming deadline an “unnecessary rush.” Corporations were allocated around $444 million, according to the offices of Alaska Sens. Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski.

The U.S. Senate in October passed legislation that would extend by one year — until Dec. 31, 2022 — the deadline to use the funds, and the House was expected to consider similar legislation.

U.S. Rep. Don Young, Alaska’s lone House member, is “determined” to secure an extension for Alaska Native organizations and tribes across the country, spokesperson Zack Brown said.

Bissett said the Treasury was working with corporations through technical or other issues, but in some cases, corporations were unresponsive or declined funds. Those categories included close to 20 corporations, with most on that list trying to work through the process, according to Bissett.

The statement said the agency does not have information on the amount of funds that have yet to be spent. The statement said Treasury supports an extension of the deadline for tribal governments and Native corporations.

Unlike in the Lower 48 states, Alaska Native tribes aren’t situated on reservations. Instead, Native land is owned by Alaska Native corporations created under a 1971 law. The for-profit corporations run oil, gas, mining and other enterprises. Alaska Natives hold shares in the corporations, which provide a range of services.

Altogether, there are more than 180 Alaska Native regional and village corporations. Funding for Alaska Native corporations was tied up in the courts until the U.S. Supreme Court in June ruled that they were entitled to the money.

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The first payments to tribes in the U.S. went out in the spring of 2020, according to GAO — well over a year before funds began going to Native corporations. The GAO, in an October report, reported issues with that rollout of money, including Treasury guidance that changed over time, “sometimes without those changes being clearly communicated to tribes.”

Treasury, in response to the GAO report, said it put into practice “lessons learned” on tribal consultations and communications and would update its tribal consultation policy.

A prior deadline for use of funds, Dec. 30, 2020, was extended last year to the upcoming deadline of Dec. 31. The bill that passed the Senate called for extending the deadline to Dec. 31, 2022, for tribes and Native corporations, according to the offices of Alaska’s senators.

Bissett said the minimum that Native corporations were expected to receive was $100,000. Bissett noted that while some corporations have faced challenges, others have already allocated their funds.

Goldbelt Inc., an Alaska Native corporation with about 4,000 shareholders, received $11.1 million, all of which is spoken for, said McHugh Pierre, the corporation president and CEO. The corporation set up an initial round of up to $2,600 for shareholders who certified financial losses, expenses or emergency economic need due to the pandemic and another round of up to $800 for purchases or losses not accounted for in the first round.

He said the money was provided as reimbursements. Some “health and safety modifications” were also made to the corporation’s headquarters building in Juneau, he said.

Pierre said Goldbelt has been fortunate working through the process and supports corporations being able to fully use their funds. He noted the pandemic and hardships, such as costs to get supplies to rural communities, are ongoing.

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This story has been updated to reflect that the first payments to tribes in the U.S. went out in the spring of 2020.