Native tuition funding measure slogs on

Keywords: University,

WASHINGTON — Fort Lewis College is only slightly closer to getting federal assistance for its Native American tuition waiver despite the efforts of lobbyists and lawmakers.

Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, D-Colo., and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, re-introduced the Native American Indian Education Act in companion bills on Monday. These bills are the latest attempts to require the federal government to cover the costs for out-of-state Native American students at Fort Lewis College in Durango.

Fort Lewis College is one of two schools in the country — the other is the University of Minnesota, Morris — that admits resident and non-resident Native American students tuition-free through a federal mandate.

Fort Lewis College’s tuition waiver began in 1911 when Colorado accepted a 6,279-acre land grant from the federal government.

In exchange for the property, Colorado agreed to keep the land and buildings there as an institution of learning and enroll Native American students tuition free, the Durango Herald previously reported in a four-part series in June 2012.

The program has grown since 1911. In fall 2012, the college had 801 non-Colorado resident Native American students and 143 resident Native American students, according to Fort Lewis College spokesman Mitch Davis.

The college was reimbursed $12,773,557 in fiscal year 2012-2013 by the state of Colorado for Native American students’ tuition, according to Davis. About $678,150 was for in-state Native American residents, and $12,095,407 was for out-of-state Native American students.

The legislation introduced on Monday would mean the federal government would cover the cost of tuition for non-resident Native American students. The amount the federal government would pay would be determined by the out-of-state tuition charges for academic year 2012-2013, or $16,072 for Fort Lewis College.

The state of Colorado would continue to cover tuition for in-state Native American students.

The goal of the bill is to ensure that the federal government pays its fair share, said Udall spokesman Mike Saccone in a telephone interview Tuesday.

“This legislation will help Fort Lewis shoulder that burden,” Saccone said.

The unfunded 1911 mandate is unfair to Colorado, Tipton spokesman Josh Green said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

“The federal government ought to be paying for it,” Green said. “Not Colorado taxpayers.”

This bill is not the first attempt by Colorado’s federal lawmakers. The charge began in the 111th Congress, when Bennet, Udall and former U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D-Manassa, introduced similar companion bills in the summer of 2010.

Those bills, along with the attempts in the 112th Congress in September 2011 and August 2012, languished in committees and never came to a vote.

Now the bills have been re-introduced in the 113th Congress, but there’s no guarantee the end result will be any different.

“It’s hard to say whether or not the bill will pass this time around,” Davis said. “It’s not unusual for a bill to take multiple sessions to pass.”

The college isn’t overly concerned with the wait, Davis added.

“It’s hard to rush things in Congress,” he said.

Green, Tipton’s spokesman, said the increased number of sponsors in the latest bill encourages the congressman. There are 27 co-sponsors for the House version, including the entire Colorado delegation, and three co-sponsors for the Senate version, as well as Bennet and Udall.

Previous House versions of the bill have had 15 co-sponsors in the 112th Congress and six co-sponsors in the 111th.

“That certainly provides hope that we’ll see movement,” Green said.

Bennet spokesman Adam Bozzi said the senator is optimistic the bill will pass in this Congress, particularly after a field hearing in Denver last summer where the director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education said the Obama Administration supported the idea in principle.

“We’re hoping to pass the bill this Congress,” Bozzi said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “That will help Colorado substantially for the future.”

Byron Tsabetsaye, president of the college’s student government, also testified at the Denver field hearing. Tsabetsaye is an out-of-state recipient of the tuition waiver as a member of the Navajo and Zuni tribes

As Tsabetsaye prepares to graduate from Fort Lewis College this week and head to New York University for graduate school in the fall, he said he will continue to benefit from the tuition waiver after he receives his diploma.

“If I went to a different institution, it would be completely different,” he said.

LOBBYISTS HIRED FOR FEDERAL HELP

The growing cost of the tuition waiver has become a cause for concern for state legislators. Because the state reimburses Fort Lewis for the cost out of the higher education budget, every dollar that goes to Fort Lewis is a dollar that other colleges don’t get.

So when a January 2010 statehouse bill threatened to cut about $1.8 million from the waiver program, the Durango college sprang into action.

Davis called the measure — which never came to a vote — “a shot across our bow.”

“We needed to do something or the waiver would be vulnerable,” Davis said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

The Fort Lewis College Foundation, a separate fundraising arm of the college, hired lobbying firm Holland & Knight LLP in September 2010, according to federal records.

The college used Holland & Knight through July 2012 and paid the firm $160,000 in that period, the records show.

The firm tried to craft a legislative solution and gain allies for the tuition waiver, said partner Philip Baker-Shenk.

The firm’s tactics for Fort Lewis College Foundation are typical strategies of lobbying firms, he said.

The fact that a bill has never left a committee is “nothing unusual,” Baker-Shenk added, noting that legislative relief is often a “frustratingly slow process.”

The Fort Lewis College Foundation hired Ben Nighthorse Consultants, Inc. in August 2012, according to federal records, and has paid the firm $76,500 since then.

Ben Nighthorse Consultants is run by former U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, who also previously worked for Holland & Knight on the Fort Lewis College Foundation account, according to records.

Ben Nighthorse Consultants confirmed the relationship, but directed all other questions to the foundation.

Foundation officials could not be reached for comment.

The cost of lobbyists is money well spent, Davis said, adding that without the firms, the bill might not exist.

Denver correspondent Joe Hanel contributed to this report.