Bipartisan effort to send sales tax money to tribes in wake of NGS closure

Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, and Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez at the Capitol on Jan. 15, 2020. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

To help the Navajo and Hopi tribes cope with the fallout of last year’s closure of the Navajo Generating Station power plant, a bipartisan effort is aiming to give some state sales tax revenues to the tribes. 

The power plant, and the mine that provided the coal it used, were among the only high-paying, full-time jobs in the region, due in large part to a 1966 prohibition on development on many reservations known as the “Bennett Freeze.”

The poverty rate in the Navajo Nation is more than 40 percent, more than double that of Mississippi, the worst among the 50 states. Navajo unemployment is roughly 22 percent, more than four times the rate of Arizona as a whole. Nearly half of Navajo households and more than 1 in 3 Hopi households earn less than $25,000 annually, and barely 20% of Navajo adults hold a full-time job.

House Bill 2150 would allow 15% of state sales taxes collected on tribal lands to be given to “qualifying” tribes for use on economic development and public safety projects. 

Flagstaff Repbulican Rep. Bob Thorpe, the bill’s sponsor, said the collection would not come out of the general fund and would minimally impact cities and towns. The exact amount likely to be collected would be $3 million, according to Thorpe.

Thorpe said he has not spoken yet with groups that represent cities and towns, who could be impacted by the bill. Thorpe added that if adjusting TPT is out of the question, then he would look to directly appropriate money from the general fund might. 

But Thorpe’s bill is not the only legislative attempt to secure additional funding for the Navajo and Hopi tribes as they grapple with what Thorpe said was a $50 million shortfall because of the power plant closure.

Rep. Arlando Teller, D-Chinle, is supporting Thorpe’s bill, but is also putting forward his own measure. 

House Bill 2496 is similar to Thorpe’s bill, but would divert up to 50% of sales tax revenue to the tribes. 

Thorpe stopped shy of saying he’d support Teller’s version of the bill, but said he was happy that the issue was getting bipartisan support. 

“This is really a discussion about sovereignty,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said of Thorpe’s bill. “This legislation recognizes that tribal nations have the sovereignty to govern themselves.” 

Nez said he thinks that all state sales taxes collected on tribal lands should go back to the tribes, but was happy nonetheless to have a bill giving 15% back, since the state currently keeps 100% of the money. 

“Now we’re just asking for our fair share to be given back to the Nation,” Nez said. 

Thorpe and Teller said they hope to see any sales tax money the tribes receive be used for infrastructure development on tribal land. Both singled out road development as a major need. 

Three-fourths of all roads owned by the Bureau of Indian Affairs are unpaved

Teller’s bill has already been heard in the House Ways and Means Committee, but Thorpe’s bill has yet to have a hearing. 

“It’s time to make Native America great again,” Thorpe said. “I think we need to shoot for the stars.”