WINDOW ROCK, ARIZ. — Another bill to implement a sales tax on unhealthy foods purchased on the Navajo Nation has started its way through the legislative process.
On Monday, the Law and Order Committee voted on the legislation, which proposes the Navajo Tax Commission impose a sales tax between 2 and 6 percent on "minimal to no nutritional value food items" purchased on the reservation.
The bill defines minimal to no nutritional value food as sweetened beverages and prepackaged and non-prepackaged snacks that are stripped of essential nutrients and are high in salt, saturated fat and sugar.
This is the latest attempt to implement the tax.
In April, delegates failed to override Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly's veto on a bill that would have enacted an additional 2 percent sales tax on junk food purchased on the reservation.
In a February memorandum Shelly wrote that the tribal government was not prepared to implement and collect taxes on junk food.
Diné Community Advocacy Alliance member Denisa Livingston said this version of the bill contains the recommendations made by delegates.
It includes several community assessments and public surveys about community health projects from communities located on the reservation as well as statistics from different areas of the reservation.
"Whereas before, we were looking at the statistics that were available outside the reservation and what studies were done on the Native American population," Livingston said.
The bill does not use the label "junk food" but rather targets "minimal to no nutritional value food items."
This version also includes a sunset clause that would end the sales tax in 2034, unless it is extended by the council.
Delegate Alton Joe Shepherd questioned the new sunset clause and asked if input has been collected from local chapters.
"The Navajo people need to know that, this tax will not be three years," Shepherd said then added that it is important to know the opinion from the "hogan level."
Delegate Russell Begaye expressed concern with portions of the bill's language, especially when addressing items like flavored floss, tape, paper and thread.
"I'm just having some issues here with certain products being named," Begaye said.
In response, Livingston said the group visited convenience stores and saw edible products like tape and paper for sale.
As for floss, it can be assumed that the user would not swallow it, she said, but the sweetener flavoring does get stuck between teeth and can cause cavities and other dental issues.
"We should be teaching our children to use regular floss," she said then added that these types of products are "sweetly engineered foods."
Committee members gave the legislation a "do pass" recommendation in a vote of three in favor and zero opposed.
It continues to the Resources and Development Committee for their consideration, which could happen as early as today.
The Law and Order Committee also considered two pieces of legislation that propose term limits for some tribal officials.
The first bill would set the term limit for the tribal presidency to two terms, or four years, and the second bill proposes that delegates serve a maximum of four terms, or 16 years.
Begaye is sponsoring both bills and reiterated that it would allow each generation the opportunity to have its own leadership, in order to understand changing needs and how to address them.
"I think eight years is adequate for a person to do the things they need to do as president," Begaye said about the presidential term limit.
As for term limits for delegates, Begaye said those terms do not have to be back to back but would limit a person to four terms in a lifetime.
"It's really hard as anyone would know, to vote out an incumbent, especially after 16 years," he said. "Everybody knows them so that person would probably be in office for their whole lifetime."
There were no comments from committee members, who gave both bills a "do not pass" recommendation in a vote of one in favor and two opposed.
Both bills continue to the Naa'bik'íyáti' Committee and the council, where final authority rests.
If the bills were enacted, they would not be applicable until the tribe's 2018 general election for the presidency and the council.