By David Lawder
ROSEBUD, South Dakota (Reuters) -U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said on Tuesday the department's new Office of Tribal and Native Affairs will to try to address chronic tax and financing inequities faced by tribes, but will need Congress to sustain it beyond the Biden administration.
Yellen told reporters the office, to be headed by newly appointed U.S. Treasurer Marilynn Malerba, the first Native woman to hold the post, will aim for parity on certain tax issues, such as prohibitions for tribes to access low-income housing tax credits and to be able to offer tax credits to attract business investment.
During a visit to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, Yellen called for a "rethink" of some tax credit programs to allow tribes to participate, and to reduce barriers to financing on tribal lands.
"We heard a lot about treaty obligations that haven't been met and long standing barriers to economic development -- lack of access to capital for example," Yellen told reporters after a meeting with Rosebud tribal officials.
Malerba, permanent chief of the Mohegan Indian Tribe, said that because of tribes' current tax status, they cannot offer tax credits to attract business, jobs and revenues, while non-tribal state and local governments can.
"So we're looking for parity on some of those issues," Malerba said. "We should be able to compete just as every other municipality, whether it's a local municipality or state government, for business on our lands and to be able to create some of those opportunities for our tribal members," she added.
Rosebud Sioux Tribe President Scott Herman said that the tribe has struggled to bring down a chronically high unemployment rate of around 80% of its members due to lack of financing. He said banks are reluctant to lend to tribes because traditional mortgages are not possible because tribal lands are held in trust by the federal government.
The new office, announced along with Malerba's appointment, also will assist tribes in making the most of some $30 billion in COVID-19 assistance funds for tribal communities.
Yellen said the office has been set up for the duration of the Biden administration, but Congress would need to pass legislation to make it permanent, with regular future funding.
The American Rescue Plan COVID-19 State and Local Fiscal Relief Fund, including money for tribes, must be obligated by the end of 2024, and fully spent by the end of 2026.
(Reporting by David Lawder; editing by Jonathan Oatis and David Gregorio)