DENVER - The state Capitol might be 350 miles and several snowbound mountain passes away, but lawmakers heard the roar
of dissent from Fort Lewis College students this week.
The college won a tactical victory Friday when legislators responded to student protests and pulled a bill to cut FLC's
reimbursement for the American Indian tuition waiver program.
But the fight has left influential people in the Legislature and Gov. Bill Ritter's administration with hard
Ultimately, I think this has created a lot of animosity here," said Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder.
At the same time, the tuition waiver remains an issue for lawmakers, and Fort Lewis still is facing the highest cuts of
any state college.
Rep. Karen Middleton, D-Aurora, sponsored House Bill 1067 at the request of the Colorado Department of Higher
Education, led by Executive Director Rico Munn. She and Munn confirmed Friday that the bill would be killed Monday at
the House Education Committee.
Their intent was to fix a policy problem: Fort Lewis is accepting increasing numbers of out-of-state American Indian
students, who get free tuition paid by the state.
The problem is, the waiver program gives Fort Lewis College an incentive to raise out-of-state tuition without giving
the state a way to control costs," Munn said.
The bill would have cut state payments to Fort Lewis from the full out-of-state tuition rate of $16,000 to about
$13,000, which is the cost of educating a student.
More than half of Fort Lewis' out-of-state students are on the waiver. Costs for the state have grown $4 million since
Fort Lewis College has a very serious budget issue, and it's not going away," Middleton said.
But her bill brought e-mails that accused her of racist motivations.
This was never about Native American students," Middleton said later Friday at a meeting with legislators and the
chairmen of the two Ute tribes. It was never about any cuts in service and cuts in numbers of Native American
students. That was really a mischaracterization that began in the press."
In fact, Middleton's bill would not have ended or limited the tuition waiver program. But it would have given the
college a $1.8 million cut in 2011, on top of the $4 million cut the college expects from the governor's budget
balancing plan. It inevitably would have caused layoffs and a poorer experience for all students, said Steve Schwartz,Fort Lewis' vice president for finance and administration.
Fort Lewis students rallied after HB 1067 was released last week. A Facebook group opposing the bill now has more than
Sen. Bruce Whitehead, D-Hesperus, and Rep. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, kept in close touch with student leaders to
coordinate the fight. Whitehead stressed that the bill was always about the budget, not about singling out American
I didn't think it was the appropriate time to address this issue, piled on top of the other cuts Fort Lewis may suffer
under the governor's (budget) proposal," Whitehead said.
But some opponents of the bill accused sponsors of breaking a century-old commitment to educate American Indians.
That brought harsh words from Pommer, who wields great influence over all college budgets as the chairman of the Joint
I think it's despicable that they would deceive people on that to try to protect their funding and get a
disproportionate advantage," Pommer said.
Fort Lewis administrators did not do enough to refute misinformation, he said.
Schwartz disputed that.
Fort Lewis College did speak up against all that, in the sessions we held with students and the documentation we sent
out," Schwartz said.
Middleton complained that Fort Lewis leaders never reached out to her to explain their concerns.
But Schwartz said he didn't even know who the sponsor was until last week, when the bill was introduced. He and Fort
Lewis President Brad Bartel flew to Denver last November to meet with Munn, after they heard rumors that his department
was planning a Fort Lewis bill. They tried to talk Munn and his staff out of the idea, Schwartz said.
Fort Lewis administrators want to mend hurt feelings now that the bill is gone. Bartel released a written statement
thanking Middleton for pulling the bill.
We understand that her intent was never to hurt Fort Lewis College. We want to thank her for her advocacy for
education and for her commitment to all Native American students," Bartel said.
Fort Lewis still supports re-examining how the tuition waiver program is funded, but college leaders want to do it as
part of a look at budgets for all Colorado colleges, Schwartz said. Ritter has set up a panel to do that study this
Roberts doubts that the fight will get Fort Lewis College blacklisted at the budget committee.
I know the legislators on the Joint Budget Committee are professionals and committed public servants. I do not
anticipate they will let partisan and political reasons factor in to those discussions when it comes to larger
discussions about the budget," Roberts said.
The backers of HB 1067 might crack down on Fort Lewis in other ways. In the meeting with tribal leaders, Middleton said
she's concerned that most American Indian students at Fort Lewis are not from Colorado. She wants Fort Lewis to recruit
more in-state students for the waiver, which would be much cheaper for the state.
In the same meeting, Munn questioned whether Fort Lewis might be violating the 1911 contract by its recent conversion
to a college that accepts only top-ranked students.
Leadership of the two Ute tribes was divided about what to do. Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Ernest House Sr. said he wants
Fort Lewis and the state to work out a solution among themselves. But the Southern Ute Tribal Council voted Thursday to
oppose HB 1067, said Southern Ute Chairman Matthew Box.
The free tuition program dates to Fort Lewis' history as an Indian Boarding School, where American Indian children were
forcibly removed from their families to assimilate them into American culture. In 1911, the federal government turned
over the school and its land near Hesperus to the state, with the requirement that the state educate all Indian
The state tried to get out of the deal in the 1970s, which brought a lawsuit. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled
against the state.
Box said he thinks the bill contravenes the spirit if not the letter" of the 10th Circuit ruling.