Navajo Nation: Can It Tax Its Way to Health?
- Apr 29, 2014 | Gail Cole
Update, 10.14.15: The Healthy Dine' Nation Act of 2014 was signed into law in November 2014. It imposes a 2% tax on the gross receipts of food items with minimal-to-no-nutrional value.
The Navajo Nation has high rates of obesity, diabetes, and other diet related diseases. Native Americans are 60% more likely than Caucasians to be obese and 33.5% more likely to be diabetic, according to the Office of Minority Health. Something must be done.
Last fall, the Navajo Nation Council proposed for the second time the imposition of an extra tax on junk foods and soda. Similar legislation had been defeated in the past, but the Council was resolved to try again. The Healthy Diné Nation Act of 2013 sought to create a 2% tax on junk food, defined as:
“[S]weetened beverages and pre-packaged and non-packaged snacks low in essential nutrients and high in salt, fat, and sugar including chips, candy, cookies, and pastries, excluding nuts, nut butters and seeds.”
In January 2014, the Navajo Nation Council voted 12-7 to enact the Healthy Diné Nation Act of 2013. Set to expire on December 31, 2018, the extra 2% sales tax on junk foods would fund the “development of wellness centers, community parks, basketball courts, walking, running and bike trails, swimming pools, community gardens, family picnic grounds, and health education classes.”
The Council also approved Legislation No. 02990-13, which eliminates the Navajo Nation 5% sales tax on fresh vegetables and fruits.
On February 12, 2014, Navajo Nation President Ben Shelley vetoed both the Healthy Diné Nation Act of 2013 and the Legislation No. 02990-13 (Council Resolution CJA-05-14). While assuring his support of healthy living, he cited concerns that “the Navajo Nation government is not currently prepared to implement and collect taxes on junk food.”
Calling the legislation “an unfunded mandate,” he argued that it would “only increase the burden on the already underfunded tax office.” It would also impact small businesses—though exactly how is not known. President Shelly pointed out that the proposed tax “will be imposed on the Navajo people, not the food and beverage industry or its distributors. The junk food importers will continue business as usual.”
In response, the Council vowed to override the president’s veto of both the Healthy Diné Nation Act of 2013 and Council Resolution CJA-05-14.
Notah Begay III, Native American, PGA golfer and advocate for health and fitness among Native Americans, urged council members to override the veto. “The battle to prevent our kids from developing Type 2 diabetes,” he said, “cannot be won without the support of our Tribal Leaders.” Speaking to council members, Begay said the message “goes much further than a simple tax; it’ll resonate and ripple through Indian country saying that we finally have a government that is willing to take a stand on this issue.”
While there was support to override the junk food tax veto, there wasn’t quite enough support. The Navajo Nation announced the following results:
- 19 council members voted to override the Council Resolution CJA-05-14 veto —enough to override the veto. Only one council member voted against the override.
- 13 council members voted to override the veto of the Healthy Diné Nation Act of 2013, and 7 members voted to sustain it. This was not enough to override the veto.
Try and try again
The Diné Community Advocacy Alliance, main backer of the Healthy Diné Nation Act of 2013, isn’t giving up. The group plans “to revise the proposal and bring it before lawmakers again during the summer legislative session” (Washington Post).
Yet even if it eventually passes and tribal members are discouraged by the tax from buying junk food, access to healthy food choices remains a challenge on much of the Navajo Reservation. According to the Washington Post, “The reservation is a vast 27,000 square miles with few grocery stores and a population with an unemployment rate of around 50 percent. Thousands of people live without electricity and have no way of storing perishable food items for too long.”
An extra tax on junk food, if ever imposed, won’t solve these issues.