RIVERTON — Wyoming’s Attorney General says local tribal entities are not eligible for grants and loans through the Wyoming Business Council Business Ready Community Program, WBC staff told the Wyoming Legislature’s Select Committee on Tribal Relations last month.
The news was surprising to Wyoming Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, who was involved, almost 20 years ago, in crafting the legislation that governs the WBC program.
“The idea was to have people be able to apply through the tribal governments – either individually or together,” Case said during the Aug. 20 meeting. “These are citizens of the state of Wyoming, (and) the state of Wyoming taxes tribal minerals. That’s a source of funding for our programs.”
WBC investment division director Julie Kozlowski agreed that "eligible applicants in the statute have always been listed as cities, towns, counties, joint powers boards, and the tribes" so "for all these years the staff of the WBC has believed that the tribes were eligible applicants for the program."
In recent years, however, Kozlowski said the WBC has “had more difficulty” making tribal projects “come to fruition.” So she reached out to the AG’s office and asked them to “please help me understand what are the hurdles that we’re looking at here.”
“Their assessment was that there wasn’t clarity on the process by which the tribes could participate in the program,” Kozlowski said.
The AG’s office suggested that tribal entities should have to enter into a cooperative agreement with the state before applying for funding through the WBC program, Kozlowski said.
But Case objected to that idea, pointing out that the WBC already enters into formal agreements with all of its grantees before distributing money.
“They can put whatever they want, whatever they agree to, in all of those agreements,” Case said. “So why do we need to come back and poke our friends in the eye and say, ‘now we want you to do this first step before you can apply,’ when we’ve been trying to treat them equal for nearly two decades? …
“This has the feeling of imposing an additional step and questioning what we’ve done before.”
Kozlowski confirmed that the WBC does have the authority to create its own rules, but after speaking with the AG’s office, she said “it was my understanding (that) that was not the preferable way” to proceed with tribal applications.
She added that she “did not understand the differentiation – why (tribal entities) had to do the cooperative agreement first.”
“Our reading of the statute was that the tribes already had the ability to participate in the program,” she said.
“They’ve been included in the statute, so to me that was the intent that was expressed 20 years ago, that they should be able to participate in this program and avail themselves of it.”
Wyoming Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, pressed Kozlowski for clarification, asking: “Right now, if one tribe were to apply for the BRC (program), is it the AG’s position that they’re prevented or precluded from being able to apply?”
“That’s my understanding,” Kozlowski replied. “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.”
Ellis said the situation represents an instance in which the executive branch is “doing something entirely contrary to (our) clear legislative language and intent.”
Moving forward, she asked state staffers to reach out to the AG’s office in order to “memorialize” lawmakers’ intent to include tribal entities in the WBC program, so that “in 20 years when there’s a new governor and a new AG … everybody understands how we expect this to work.”
“That’s why I’m concerned about this,” Ellis said. “We need (to) have some assurance that whatever we pass here is going to be executed in accordance with our intent.”