Alaska Native Corporations, the last to get CARES Act funds, are having trouble spending it. They have until year’s end

The East Plaza of the U.S. Capitol. (Photo by Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)
The East Plaza of the U.S. Capitol. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska Native Corporations only recently received nearly half a billion dollars in CARES Act funds and are imploring Congress for more time to spend it. The deadline is the end of the year.

Without an extension, the corporations have just three more weeks to find an authorized way to spend the money, and in some cases they’re running into a spending logjam.

The Treasury Department reserved $444 million from the CARES Act to distribute to ANCs, which include the 12 regionals and almost 200 village corporations. But the money was held up by a lawsuit that the U.S. Supreme Court finally resolved in June. The corporations didn’t get the money until August, or later. Some village corporations were still waiting for their CARES distribution in December.

“Probably 40 to 60% of our members are still struggling to even get the infrastructure set up to deploy the money, and there’s just not going to be enough time to do it responsibly, given the guardrails that they have around what you can spend it on,” said Hallie Bissett, executive director of the Alaska Native Village Corporation Association.

The money arrived too late in the season for most villages to bring in equipment or building materials by barge. And, according to the CARES Act rules, a corporation can’t beat the deadline by merely signing contracts or buying supplies.

“Things have to be in service before the 31st, for instance,” Bissett said. “That adds its own complexities when you’re not even able to get supplies to your village. And that’s just regular Alaska supply chain issues. You add on top of that, there’s kind of a supply chain crisis going on at the same time.”

The corporations are a small part of CARES Act spending. The 2020 law delivered $150 billion to states, local governments and tribes.

At first, the deadline was the end of 2020, so every governing body was in a big hurry to use or lose its money. Many of Alaska’s tribes disbursed the bulk of their CARES Act allocation directly to their members to cover pandemic needs. That meant some of the easy spending opportunities were already taken by the time corporations got their share.

Consider the dilemma of Stebbins Village Corporation. Stebbins is a community of about 600 on Norton Sound. In August, the village corporation got about $250,000 from the CARES Act. With only a few months to spend it, the fastest thing would’ve been to distribute it to shareholders.

But by then, the Stebbins tribe had already received close to $10 million in COVID relief money, from both CARES and the American Rescue Plan.

“So the first thing that happens is the tribes were given the opportunity to allocate funds to tribal members to help them as individuals,” said Keith Tryck, a consultant for Stebbins Village Corp. “Well, the thing is, you can’t go and double dip.”

Tryck means that if a household applied to the tribe for CARES money to, for instance, buy their kids laptops for remote education, and then got money from the regional corporation to pay the internet bill, the village corporation couldn’t pay that household for the same expenses.

It’s left the village corporations hunting to find documented needs the larger organizations missed, Tryck said.

“So you begin to see that there’s an administrative, almost a conundrum that’s very difficult for anybody without a major administrative capacity,” he said.

What’s so frustrating, Tryck said, is the corporation did spend resources on pandemic needs, but in the thick of things, nobody kept track of, say, how many days a worker at the village store spent packaging food baskets to distribute to households on lockdown.

And there’s much more need. Stebbins needs a water and sewer system. The village corporation has equipment it could deploy to help build it, Tryck said. But not if the deadline is in three weeks.

Big regional corporations are up against the deadline, too.

Cook Inlet Region Inc. got $112 million from the CARES Act. The money arrived in August.

Senior Director of Corporate Affairs Ethan Tyler said CIRI has spent some of it to meet the immediate household needs of its shareholders and their descendants. CIRI would like to fund larger efforts, Tyler said, to meet long-term needs.

“But we’re facing this perfect storm of supply chain interruptions and labor shortages,” he said. “And all of this against the backdrop of a deadline that we’re trying to meet while remaining in compliance with the law.”

The U.S. House and Senate have each passed bills to move the deadline to the close of next year. But the bills are different. Sen. Murkowski said Wednesday that she was working the phones to get both houses of Congress to pass the same extension before lawmakers leave for Christmas break.

Alaska Public Media

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