On the afternoon of April 18, 2013, tribal members that own businesses on the reservation addressed the Isleta Tribal Council concerning the Council’s Cigarette Tax. The Council imposes a .75 cent tax on each pack of cigarettes a business purchases for retail sale on the reservation. Business owners must pay the tax on the 15th day of each month. The business owners were hoping to convince the Council to lower its tax.
Tribal member, Edward Chewiwi, a business owner explained that a prior Council determined that the tax would be .75 cents per carton. The previous Council, however, changed the tax to .75 per pack. According to Chewiwi, the prior Council made the change without notice to business owners.
Due to the tax, businesses no longer have a competitive edge against off reservation cigarette sellers. As a result, business owners have suffered a decrease in sales. The loss of sales caused a decrease in profits, which is causing some business owners to struggle to stay open.
Kimberly Kirk, a tribal member, also explained that the Council’s Cigarette Tax Ordinance requires the Council to meet with business owners annually concerning the tax. The prior Councils, however, did not hold such meetings.
Tribal business owners must pay employees, insurance, gas, electricity and other miscellaneous expenses. After all business expenses are paid, the business owners might be able to pay themselves.
Tribal Attorney, Pablo Padilla, explained that the Council must impose a cigarette tax to prevent the State of New Mexico from coming onto the reservation to enforce its tax. Padilla told the business owners that he does not represent the Council with respect to the tax. He said Carolyn Abeita is the attorney representing the Council concerning cigarette tax issues. But, he stated that he knows why the Council imposes the tax.
According to Padilla, federal law allows states to collect taxes from non-Indians that buy cigarettes from retailers located on Indian reservations. So, the State began threatening the Tribe that it would enforce its right to collect its tax unless the Tribe began imposing its own tax. The State wanted the Tribe to impose a tax to level the playing field between retailers on the reservation and retailers off the reservation. Padilla explained that the State requires the Pueblo to maintain a minimum tax.
Essentially, this means the Council is unlikely to lower the .75 cent tax.
Gretchen Zuni, a tribal member and a business owner, explained that her business and other business owners have always given back to the community. The business owners have made financial contributions to tribal programs such as Isleta Social Services, the Isleta Police Department and to children that participate in extra-curricular activities. Now, they are unable to do that because the business owners are struggling for survival.
Council President Michael Allen Lente told the business owners that the Council will take their concerns into consideration. Council member Josephine Padilla also explained to the business owners that the Council must consider the interests of the Tribe as a whole when making decisions.
The Council spent the morning session of their meeting with Treasurer Andrew “Tino” Teller, in an executive session, discussing issues relating to the Cigarette Tax and problems with some business owners that are delinquent in paying the tax.
Gretchen Zuni asked Council President Michael Allen Lente whether the Council could form a sub-committee of Council members to meet with the business owners. President Lente told her that the Council would consider her request.
By Christopher Abeita