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March 5, 2021, 4:17 p.m. EST

COVID relief bill reopens dispute over Alaskan Native aid that irked Murkowksi

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By Jonathan Nicholson

How $20 billion in federal aid would be distributed to Native American tribal governments could hurt Democrats’ chances of wooing an Alaska Republican to support their $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill.

Democrats have held out hope of getting a few Republicans on board with their sweeping coronavirus bill unveiled Thursday in order to demonstrate their bipartisanship and saw Sen. Lisa Murkowksi, a moderate Republican from Alaska, as a possible convert. Provisions dealing with seafood processors and tourism that could appeal to Murkowksi were already in the bill.

But the bill, which Senate Democrats hope to pass by the week’s end, also risks reopening a dispute that forced Murkowski to choose last year between Native-owned but for-profit companies called Alaska Regional Native Corporations and the Native American tribes in the Lower 48 states.

In the March 2020 CARES Act coronavirus aid bill, “tribal governments” was interpreted by the Donald Trump administration to include the ANCs, not just the 574 federally recognized tribes, making the ANCs eligible to receive part of the $8 billion in aid.

The dispute landed in federal court, as groups representing most of the Lower 48 tribes feared losing a big portion of the aid to the ANCs, which Murkowski and the rest of the Alaska congressional delegation supported.

The new bill contains different eligibility language than the one last March but the ANCs say it still leaves them out in the cold.

“We are deeply concerned by language in the Senate bill that would severely limit funds available to Alaska Native people. Despite our state’s successful vaccination deployment, scores of Alaska’s Native communities are stretched to a breaking point,” the ANCSA Regional Association and Alaska Native Village Corporation Association said in a joint statement.

“Many of our villages lack road access and over 30 Alaska Native communities currently lack access to running water. These realities are further exacerbated by the economic devastation COVID-19 has brought to Alaska, along with some of the highest mortality rates in the nation,” the groups said.

A request for comment from Murkowski’s office was not immediately returned, but in the past Murkowski has said the ANCs should be treated the same as tribes in the contiguous United States, as they often provide similar health and social services.

The Alaskan groups said many Native Alaska communities had yet to receive money from the CARES Act because of ongoing litigation. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case, which could have broader implications for Native eligibility for aid under federal programs.

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