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Balancing the tribal budget

ASU to help provide valuable financial training for Indian communities

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April 19, 2016

Tax Day, despite being a source of frustration for millions of individual Americans navigating a morass of rules and regulations, is still a relatively straightforward process. And if you get stuck, there are tax-preparation experts who can help.

But for American Indian tribes and organizations, there are additional layers of regulations at the federal level — during tax season and throughout the year. And there are very few people who can help.

That's why ASU’s American Indian Policy Institute has helped to create the Tribal Economic Leadership Executive Education Program, a new effort that provides fiscal and economic training for tribal nations, tribal organizations and other entities working with tribes. 

The program provides training to help tribal government professionals implement sound fiscal and economic policies. It addresses a wide range of topics from how federal Indian law affects tribal financial management to how Native leadership can tackle emerging financial issues.

“[The American Indian Policy Institute] is glad to play a supportive role to tribal nations as they build their nations and grow their economic development enterprises,” said Traci Morris, the director of the institute at Arizona State University. Morris and her team partnered with the Native American Financial Officers Association on the program.

American Indian reservations, as government entities, deal directly with the federal government in a way similar to state and local governments. But many Indian organizations face additional financial requirements because of the unique way they are organized and make money. Compliance can get complicated.

According to Lacey Horn, the treasurer of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma and a member of the U.S. Treasury’s Tribal Advisory Committee, these different requirements pose a problem for tribes when reporting their revenues and expenditures.

“It’s a little like fitting a square peg into round holes,” said Horn. “Tribes have to reverse engineer to comply with standards designed for local and state government.”

For many tribes, unintentionally failing to comply with federal requirements can have drastic adverse consequences on their budgets. Even if it is an accident, the federal government can fine tribes and strip organizations of their federal funding as well as force them to pay back any previous grants.

The Tribal Economic Leadership (TEL) program provides necessary information about tribal finances, a topic that is so specialized that many general accounting and auditing firms lack the necessary skills to work with tribes as they navigate federal regulations. The new program fills a need in developing expertise in the field to ensure full compliance with federal rules.

TEL is an expansion of the highly successful Tribal Financial Managers Certification training offered continuously at ASU by the American Indian Policy Institute since 2009. To date, the Tribal Financial Managers Certification program has trained 340 tribal CFOs, tribal accountants and other leaders from across the United States. The announcement of today’s partnership with the Native American Finance Officers Association (NAFOA) ensures more tribal leaders have the ability to learn important financial management tools.

In addition to the information provided by TEL, the program also will link tribal executives to each other and create a new network for leaders to share information about financial management.

“The program won’t just provide participants with information and tools; it gives Native leaders a peer network of tribal leaders,” said Horn. “People who go through this program can collaborate with tribal executives across the country to promote best financial practices.”

For NAFOA, the decision to partner with ASU for the program was obvious.

“We could not have asked for a better partner in building out meaningful professional development opportunities...” said Bill Lomax, NAFOA president. "ASU has a demonstrated a deep commitment and responsibility to the Native nations and Native peoples the university serves."