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Fair funding for Fort Lewis College

Week one of the 2010 legislative session wrapped up with a fizzle more than a bang.

We had the traditional opening ceremonies and heard speeches from the leadership of both parties, as well as from the governor. But, the mood in the building is more somber and flat than what I’ve seen in past years, no doubt because of the sour economic realities we’re facing at the state level.

Despite the oppressive atmosphere already present in the Capitol, I’m looking forward to the session ahead. This is the time to bring the ideas from home up to Denver to see if we can improve the functioning of state government. I field phone calls, e-mails, letters and meet with a lot of people in the district during the interim and that input is very valuable to me once I’ve returned for a new legislative session.

My bills are being introduced and are starting along the path of being sent to a committee to be heard for the first time. My first bill to be presented is to add the voluntary contribution check-off box to the state income tax forms for the 2-1-1 call centers in Colorado.

Adding the tax form check-off is an efficient way to support this privately provided service. It’s particularly important to the southwest corner of Colorado as currently we’re the only area in the state without the ability to call 2-1-1 to help people in need find assistance with such basics as food, clothing and shelter. These are difficult times and, as our local United Way pointed out to me during the interim, this kind of help is needed now more than ever.

In addition to the bill work, we’re setting up my legislative office with my legislative aide and intern and going through the getting-to-know-you stages of a new work team. They’ll be a great help in responding to constituent concerns.

Understandably, I’ve heard from a number of constituents who are concerned about the governor’s proposed budget cuts to Fort Lewis College. I’ve been in a number of meetings about this, here and at home, and will do my best to educate legislators and other policy makers about the negative impacts such significant cuts would have, especially with such a short time frame to plan for them.

There are really two different cuts proposed to Fort Lewis. One is similar to cuts proposed for all state colleges and universities, although as proposed, ours is disproportionately higher than the other schools.

The second cut is a large reduction in state reimbursement for the tuition waivers for Native American students. Fort Lewis College is rightfully proud of, and benefits greatly from, the cultural diversity that comes with its Native American students. The tuition waiver for such students is a legal obligation that was taken on by the state long ago when it accepted the fort property set aside by the federal government for an Indian Reservation School, which later became Fort Lewis College. While the proposed budget cut doesn’t eliminate the waiver for the Native American student, the practical impact of the significantly reduced reimbursement will negatively affect all of the college’s students and faculty.

With term limits, we have very few legislators who are familiar with the unique history and obligations of Fort Lewis College. Unless they or family members attended Fort Lewis, most also don’t realize what an economic driver the college is to our area, especially important during the winter months and in a bad economy.

Our challenge — and the challenge extends to each person, business owner and the area’s elected officials who values Fort Lewis College for whatever reasons — is to make Gov. Ritter, his department heads and the rest of the state legislators know that, while we’re prepared to do our part in the necessary state belt tightening, those cuts must be proportionately fair and meet the state’s longstanding legal obligations.