Business council funding for tribes still confounds lawmakers

RIVERTON - State lawmakers continued to express confusion this month about tribal eligibility for economic development programs in Wyoming.

The state’s Select Committee on Tribal Relations advanced a draft bill last week clarifying that tribal entities are eligible for the Wyoming Business Council’s Business Ready Community Grant program. The clarification was deemed necessary after the Wyoming Attorney General told WBC officials that tribal entities were not eligible for the program. 

The AG’s determination was made despite the fact that tribal entities have received BRC grants in the past. The WBC says three tribal BRC projects were approved and completed in 2007, one for the Eastern Shoshone Tribe and two for the Northern Arapaho Tribe. 

Wyoming Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, said those 2007 projects should have “laid the foundation of how future (tribal) requests would be handled,” and she expressed concern that “we just don’t know what the problem was” that led to the AG’s determination that tribal entities were ineligible for BRC grants. 

“I wish we had that information,” Ellis said. “We still haven’t seen what the articulated concern is, (and) we’re guessing that this fixes it.” 

Wyoming Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, said he had heard the AG’s office like the bill. 

But when Wyoming Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, asked WBC CEO Josh Dorrell whether “our AGs think that this fixes it,” Dorrell said, “I’m not at liberty to discuss that particular piece.” 

“I know there have been conversations around that,” he said, “but I can’t really speak to that.” 

He told The Ranger that the WBC and the AG’s office have an attorney-client relationship and communication between the two entities is therefore privileged. A request for emails between the WBC and AG’s office regarding tribal applications for BRC programs was denied for the same reason. 

A 2016 report from Wyoming’s Management Audit Committee says “political subdivisions allowed to apply for BRC program funds include a city, town, county, joint powers board with the approval of all participating agencies to the joint powers agreement, and the Wind River Reservation tribes, through cooperative agreements.” 

The Eastern Shoshone Tribe earned a BRC planning request in 2007 to conduct a study targeting expansion of business activity in the technological industry in the Wind River Indian Reservation area. 

Also in 2007, the Northern Arapaho Tribe earned a BRC Business Committed grant of $650,000 to expand and construct access and exit turning lanes onto Wyoming Highway 789/U.S. Highway 26 from the Wind River Casino and its future industrial park and tribal residential area.  It also earned a BRC Business Committed grant of $1.28 million to purchase and renovate a 17,000 square foot building in Riverton for the Wind River Development Fund to own and lease to Wind River Healthcare Systems, Inc. 

“Since that time there has not been a project brought forth,” Dorrell told the select committee during its meeting last week in Riverton, adding, “That kind of tells me that this question of eligibility and providing clarity has been around for a while, and a number of administrations have probably looked at that or maybe wrestled with it a bit, or haven’t addressed it.” 

In 2015, the Northern Arapaho Tribe applied for a $2.7 million Business Committed grant for broadband infrastructure through a Fiber to the Home Internet Protocol based system to government, education, businesses, and residential subscribers of the Wind River Indian Reservation, according to the WBC, which indicates the application was later withdrawn. 

Case recalled it as a “denial,” however. 

“I believe there was a denial at one time to a telecommunications proposal,” he said last week, adding, “It wasn’t because it was a tribal entity – I think there were other complicating things (involving) right-of-way and competing with other companies.” 

The last tribal application to the BRC program was received this spring, when the Northern Arapaho Tribe submitted a planning request to conduct a study to target expansion of business activity in the technological industry in the Wind River Indian Reservation area, according to the WBC, which says that application also was withdrawn. 

Dorrell was hired as WBC CEO less than two years ago, and he said when his team saw the tribal application “come toward us, we felt like we really needed to fix this.” 

In August, WBC investment division director Julie Kozlowski said tribal entities have always been considered eligible applicants to the BRC program, but “we’ve had more difficulty in recent years” making tribal projects “come to fruition.” 

That’s why she reached out to the AG’s office for help. 

“Their assessment was that there wasn’t clarity on the process by which the tribes could participate in the program,” Kozlowski said in August. “Our AG believes that (tribal entities) are ineligible to apply at this point in time, (and) the cooperative agreement being done first is what would be necessary for them to be an eligible applicant.” 

The news was surprising to Case, who noted that tribal members are “citizens of the state of Wyoming, (and) the state of Wyoming taxes tribal minerals” which serve as a source of funding for the BRC program.