CROW AGENCY — The chairman of the Crow Tribe told a gathering of tribal members Monday afternoon that he plans to furlough 70 government workers later this week as the government faces a possible shutdown in the absence of a new annual budget.

Three hours later, however, Chairman A.J. Not Afraid contacted The Billings Gazette to announce that he intends on Tuesday to fully shut down all nonessential tribal operations not fully funded by federal grants.

The abrupt reversal, he said, was spurred by a conversation with another tribal official, who said the tribe's coffers would only allow the government to keep the lights on for about another week.

"He recommended it would be wise if we just do a general government shutdown," Not Afraid told The Gazette. "I thought we could (stay open), but there aren't enough carryover funds to continue operating."

The shutdown won't affect essential tribal services such as law enforcement and security on the Crow Reservation, he said, but regulatory programs, health care services not fully funded by federal grants, and other programs will be temporarily shuttered.

A shutdown of tribal government is within Not Afraid's power, Legislative Branch Attorney Dawn Gray said Monday night. But, she added, the tribe's constitution stipulates that the tribal legislature can't legally pass a budget until 15 days after the administration submits its proposed budget, which didn't happen until last week.

"Legally, our hands are tied by the constitution," Gray said. "The reason why that 15-day notice was there is for the public and so things would be transparent ... Just because they're late, does that mean we have to squash the people's right to the transparency of passing something like that?"

In remarks to more than 150 tribal members gathered at the tribe’s multipurpose building in Crow Agency on Monday afternoon, Not Afraid said his administration is partially to blame for the latest round of austerity measures, although he accused the tribe’s Legislative Branch of playing politics with public employees.

“There’s truth to what is being said by the legislature, that submittal of the budget was first of all untimely, secondly had no (precise) numbers,” Not Afraid said.

Having been elected last year on a platform to bring financial stability to a tribal government that has piled up debt amid declining revenue from coal production in recent years, he emphasized his administration has had to make hard decisions to trim the tribe’s fiduciary obligations from what he said was a $64 million debt when he took office.

“That was my vow running for office, that I would try to retire this debt. And that debt is more than $50 million,” he said.

In an interview after the meeting, Not Afraid said he had asked the directors of all executive branch departments to identify a total of 70 employees to be furloughed until the Legislative Branch passes its budget. Those announcements would come Thursday, he said at the time.

That comes on top of earlier reductions in the tribal government workforce that included about 50 employees in the Beautification Department, which performs jobs such as picking up trash, and furloughs for the entire Cultural Resources Department — about another dozen employees.

Currently, the Crow Tribe employs about 560 workers, which Not Afraid said is about a third of the number of employees on the government payroll when he took office last year. Speaking later Monday night, he said the more widespread shutdown would temporarily lay off about 240 tribal employees and stop services that offer drug addiction treatment and a program that helps low-income tribal members with their energy bills.

Over the weekend, the administration also announced that “elder checks” — payments made to elderly retirees by the tribe — would be on hold pending the approval of the new budget by the Legislative Branch.

“We’re not trying to hold these payments hostage,” Not Afraid told tribal members during the meeting. “It’s just that by the due process, we cannot expend these funds.”

Legislative officials responded the same day with a statement that last week’s submission of the executive branch's proposed budget left them unable to approve it before the fiscal year ended Sept. 30.

The two branches are at odds over the rules that allow a special session to be called to advance a new budget, which Not Afraid contends should allow the legislature to complete its business before the requisite 15 days. Gray, however, said Monday that the 15-day requirement also applies to special sessions.

The legislature plans to hold a special session to vote on Not Afraid’s budget proposal in the middle of the branch’s previously scheduled regular session this month, Gray said.

“If we were truly going to have a special session, you should have had that budget submitted by Sept. 14 and we could have had a special session Sept. 30,” she said.

The ongoing budget dispute is the latest flare-up between two branches of government that have previously found themselves at odds during Not Afraid’s tenure.

In July, the Legislative Branch took his administration to court over what it claims was an illegal reservationwide referendum called by Not Afraid, questioning the validity of the tribe’s 2001 constitution and its federal water rights compact. The case is awaiting a ruling by the tribe’s Judicial Branch.

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Morning Reporter

General assignment reporter for the Billings Gazette.