By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
One Feather Staff
A proposal currently before Tribal Council would change the dates for per capita distribution to members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI). Ord. No. 135 (2022), submitted by former EBCI First Lady Cyndi Lambert, was discussed by Council in a work session on the afternoon of Wednesday, March 16.
Currently, per capita distribution payments are on June 1 and Dec. 1.
The legislation seeks to amend Cherokee Code Sec. 16C-5(a) adding the language, “The first semi-annual per capita payment shall be delivered to each eligible member no later than the Tuesday before Memorial Day; and the second semi-annual per capita payment shall be made no later than the Tuesday before Thanksgiving Day. It shall be understood that these are ‘no later than’ dates and the per capita payments may be made anytime prior to those days in accordance with Section 16C-5(h).”
A total of 49 other EBCI tribal members signed on to introduce the legislation along with Lambert.
“By submitting this legislation, I want everyone to know that the intent was not to place blame on anyone,” said Lambert. “I just want to try to figure out a way to ease the burden or come up with a solution to help as many of our members as possible.”
She noted that a lot of tribal members like to go on vacation over the Memorial Day weekend and to take advantage of savings opportunities for Christmas shopping afforded by Thanksgiving sales. Lambert said changing the dates would allow families to enjoy both and would “help with some of the financial burden that some of our families have”.
She added, “I think it’s a good thing to help as many of our people as we can because a lot of our families struggle financially. They count on that per capita twice a year. And, if we can do something, even something minor, to help them save $50, $100, even $20 – that’s important to them and their families.”
Susie Wolfe, EBCI Office of Budget & Finance, told Council, “This has always been a topic – changing the dates. It’s been discussed numerous times since the inception of per capita. The big effect on it that we see is the people that receive Social Security disability and other federal benefit payments that require spend-down provisions – that’s one of the main reasons that our office does not recommend altering that current payment schedule.”
She addressed a separate issue of tribal members not receiving their checks on time noting, “We are very aware of the delay that’s been experienced by enrolled members who receive their checks by the U.S. mail. But that is beyond our control at the Finance Office. All the mail is routed through Greenville, S.C.”
Wolfe went on to say, “The only way to ensure that a per capita payment is received on-time, regardless of the required distribution date under tribal law, is for members to sign up for direct deposit and maintain an active bank account.”
To help curb mail delays, Wolfe said EBCI Budget & Finance is planning to deliver checks five days prior to the distribution date. She said the cost to mail the checks per distribution is around $5,000 to $6,000 with most of the checks being mailed off the Qualla Boundary.
Mike Quillen, EBCI Public Health and Human Services business director, said there are currently 125 EBCI tribal members receiving SSI (Supplemental Security Income) benefits. Quillen contacted the Social Security Administration, “They said there is a potential, if it is moved back…to delay the reinstatement of their SSI and they’ll have less time to spend it down.”
For clarity, the CPT Institute defines a spend down as, “For an individual receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and/or Medicaid, a ‘spend down’ literally refers to spending excess money that he/she receives within a calendar month to maintain eligibility for public benefits.”
Painttown Rep. Dike Sneed offered an idea to make the per capita loan amount, currently at $500, larger for the last month prior to the distribution. Wolfe replied, “That idea has never come about, but we’ll take it into consideration though.”
Wolftown Rep. Bill Taylor asked if a change to the ordinance would, in any way, affect the gaming compact the Tribe has with the State of North Carolina.
Michael McConnell, EBCI attorney general, stated that the compact would not have to be changed at all, but the change would have to be approved by the NIGC (National Indian Gaming Commission). “This is a change in timing. It’s not a substantive change as to the amount of distribution…so, I wouldn’t anticipate any opposition to it from NIGC.”
Big Cove Rep. McCoy said she agrees with Lambert’s proposal as well as Rep. Sneed’s. I do agree with raising the amount that people can borrow against their per capita. I’ve never had an issue with that.”
On the proposed ordinance change, she noted, “I feel like the change right here is not that major, and I think that we can do it.”
Council Vice Chairman Albert Rose commented, “I don’t have a problem moving the dates. I think we’re still going to get the same phone calls that we’re now getting. We might get the phone call that ‘well, now I’ve got my check a day early and I can’t cash it until the day that I can’.”
Former Principal Chief Patrick Lambert spoke on the legislation, “Something as minor as changing a date for a few days can have such a big impact on people.”
He said that changing the date wouldn’t necessarily have a negative impact on SSI if they take out a per capita loan. “Loans are not counted as income, but the amount of the loan repayment will count as spend down. So, by giving people per capita loans, it actually helps the people that get SSI.”
At the end of the work session on Wednesday, Cyndi Lambert asked that the legislation be re-tabled during the April Tribal Council for further research and discussion.