Navajo lawmakers pass massive coronavirus relief spending bill

Window Rock, Ariz. • Lawmakers on the Navajo Nation have approved a massive spending bill to respond to the coronavirus pandemic that includes money for water projects, power lines, broadband and casino employees who have been laid off.

The Navajo Nation Council passed the nearly $651 million in spending late Friday after discussing it for more than 28 hours in a special session over three days. The money comes from the Navajo Nation's share of $8 billion federal coronavirus relief funding that was set aside for tribes.

"This was a collective effort that brought to the service all the underlying, systemic challenges like lack of running water and access to electricity that are common throughout the Navajo Nation," council Speaker Seth Damon said Saturday. "This legislation begins to directly address those obstacles we face, as Navajo people, in protecting the health of our own homes and communities."

Navajo President Jonathan Nez has 10 days to act on the measure once it reaches him. It's unclear whether he'll keep the legislation intact. Many of his proposals are reflected in the bill but not in the exact amounts he outlined to lawmakers.

Nez previously signed off on about $60 million in spending but vetoed $70 million in proposed spending.

The tribe received more than $714 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. With the measure approved Friday, about $1.15 million remains.

The Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise is relying on $24 million in the tribal legislation to put hundreds of casino employees back on the payroll. The tribe's three casinos in New Mexico, and a travel center and resort casino in northern Arizona remain closed.

The enterprise continued paying its employees but nearly exhausted its cash reserves after 19 weeks. About 900 people were told Monday they no longer would get a paycheck. Another 125 people are scheduled to be laid off in the coming days.

The casinos and much of the tribal government is shut down until at least mid-August. Residents on the reservation that extends into New Mexico, Arizona and Utah are required to wear masks when out in public. The tribe also has daily curfews and weekend lockdowns to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The tribe reported 36 additional cases of COVID-19 late Friday and two more deaths, bringing the total number of people infected to 9,055. Health officials said 6,677 have recovered. The death toll was 456.

The vast majority of people who are diagnosed with COVID-19 recover. For some people it causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough.

For some people who contract the virus, especially those who are older or have underlying health conditions, it can cause more severe illness and death.