Two Congressional Bills Aid Natives
Senator Jon Kyl,(R-Ariz) has worked several years to get the Arizona Water Settlement Act ratified by Congress and finally succeeded with a final vote in the House last month under the sponsorship of Representative J.D. Hayworth, (R- Ariz). President Bush signed the bill into law the other day giving two Indian tribes control of nearly half the Colorado River water set aside for Phoenix and Tucson.
According to Erica Rosenberg, director of the program on Public Policy at the College of Law, Arizona State University, Native Americans, who have the highest military service record of any ethnic group in the nation, have been discriminated against by illegally withholding state taxes from their paychecks. For decades the Department of Defense withheld wages of thousands of enlisted Native Americans whose legal residence is on the reservation, and so according to the U.S. Constitution should not have been paying state taxes.
Now, the American Indian Veterans Pay Restoration, a bill introduced by Representative Tom Udall (D-NM) aims to put that money back in Native pockets.
It is, indeed, gratifying to see both Democrats and Republicans working together in Congress for the benefit of the Native tribes in our country.
The tribes – Gila River Indian community and the Tohono O’odham Nation benefiting from the Water Settlement Act - could lease some of the water to cities, but they will probably keep most of the water to support agricultural activities on their reservations.
Sen. Kyl states, “This legislation demonstrates that even a vast army of diverse groups with divergent interests can resolve strong differences over scarce and critical resources if they persevere and operate in good faith.”
Rosenberg writes, that four years ago, after congressional pressure, the defense department conceded its withholding practices against Native veterans was wrong and offered the vets an opportunity to stop illegal withholding and get some of their money back. Yet, many recently aware of their rights won’t recover their lost wages.
Why? Some may decide the cost of pursuing the refund of their taxes and all of the red tape isn’t worth their time. Those who do have legitimate claims are often stymied by bureaucratic roadblocks. If they are no longer in the service, they may be out of luck because of the statutes of limitations or the states have not kept the necessary records.
Emil Beck, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee who has lived on the reservation since 1976 and joined the coast Guard in 1982 didn’t give up. Shortly after he enlisted, he filed a protest with North Carolina’s Department of Revenue over his state tax return. The state responded that he, like all military personnel who were state residents, was subject to the state tax.
He filed the same protest for the next five years and got the same response from the state. In 1996, he tried amending his returns for the previous four years and the state still denied his refund. He finally got legal assistance in 1999. Citing the relevant law and after 17 years of effort, Beck finally recovered the full amount that was owed to him, $22,000 including interest.
Not everyone has Beck’s persistence and stamina, but if Congressman Udall’s American Indian Veterans Pay Restoration Act is passed by the House and Senate, the way has been paved to right a wrong perpetrated on Native vets.
This story has been edited for content and length from the pps of The Arizona Republic. Rosenberg’s editorial appeared in the December 5th edition of the paper.
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