WASHINGTON – Despite the efforts of lobbyists and lawmakers, Fort Lewis College is only slightly closer to getting federal assistance for its Native American tuition waiver.
But the waiver’s supporters are hopeful that the latest legislation, introduced last week, could be a turning point in their uphill battle for federal aid.
Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, D-Colo., and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, reintroduced the Native American Indian Education Act in companion bills early last week. These bills are the most recent attempts to require the federal government to cover the costs for out-of-state Native American students at Fort Lewis College in Durango.
The state of Colorado currently pays all tuition expenses for those FLC students – whether they’re residents of Colorado or not – under a 1911 federal mandate.
The state spent $12,773,557 in fiscal year 2012-13 for 801 non-Colorado resident Native American students and 143 resident Native American students, college spokesman Mitch Davis said.
The legislation introduced last week would have the federal government cover the cost of tuition for nonresident Native American students. The state of Colorado would continue to cover tuition for in-state Native American students.
Bennet, Udall and Tipton’s spokesmen called the legislation a way to get the federal government to pay its fair share so Colorado wouldn’t have to shoulder the entire burden.
“The federal government ought to be paying for it, not Colorado taxpayers,” Tipton’s spokesman Josh Green said.
These measures are an attempt to get ahead of the curve, said former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, a lobbyist for the issue. The college’s fundraising entity has spent $272,223 on lobbying and legal efforts for the tuition waiver since September 2010.
“What happens when 900 Indian youngsters turn into three or four thousand?” Campbell said.
The latest legislation is not the only undertaking by Colorado’s federal lawmakers for the tuition waiver: their efforts began in 2010 in the 111th Congress. The bills languished in committees and never came to a vote in both the 111th and 112th Congresses.
Now the bills have been reintroduced in the 113th, 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.”
FLC President Dene Kay Thomas said progress has been made and she was not concerned with the wait. Thomas has made six trips to Washington to meet with lawmakers about the tuition waiver in the last year, Davis said.
“We’re gaining momentum every time,” Thomas said. “This is how bills like this move through.”
An increased number of co-sponsors this time around have encouraged Tipton, an alumnus of the college, Green said.
A field hearing in Denver last summer left Bennet optimistic, his spokesman Adam Bozzi said. At the hearing, the director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education said the Obama administration supported the idea in principle.
Byron Tsabetsaye, president of the college’s student government, also testified at the hearing. Tsabetsaye is an out-of-state recipient of the tuition waiver as a member of the Navajo and Zuni tribes.
“If I went to a different institution, it would be completely different,” he said.
Campbell is hoping to build on last summer’s hearing in the Senate with a hearing in the House in this Congress.
“Financial help from Washington would be a godsend,” he said.
Lobbyists hired to help
The growing cost of the tuition waiver has become a cause for concern for state legislators. Because the state reimburses FLC out of the higher-education budget, every dollar that goes to FLC 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, FLC 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.
The Fort Lewis College Foundation, a separate fundraising arm of the college, hired lobbying firm Holland & Knight LLP from September 2010 to June 2012.
The firm was paid $180,000 for legal and lobbying services in that period, according to the foundation.
The fact that a bill has never left a committee is “nothing unusual,” said Holland & Knight partner Philip Baker-Shenk, noting that legislative relief often is a “frustratingly slow process.”
The FLC Foundation hired Ben Nighthorse Consultants Inc. in July 2012 and has paid the firm $92,223 for lobbying since then.
Campbell, the former senator, runs Ben Nighthorse Consultants. He also previously worked for Holland & Knight on the FLC Foundation account, federal records show.
The lobbyists have been “critical” to the tuition-waiver efforts, said Margie Gray, the foundation’s executive director.
Without advocates in Washington, Gray said, the bill and the college itself might be in jeopardy.
And more than $200,000 for lobbyists is a fraction of the nearly $13 million Colorado spent on the tuition waiver for 2012-13, Thomas said.
Herald Staff Writer Joe Hanel contributed to this report from Denver. Stefanie Dazio is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for the Herald. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.