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Time for a necessary confrontation

Politics is a contact sport and sometimes confrontation is unavoidable.

Such confrontation can be healthy and arrive at a better resolution than if conflicting ideas hadn’t had a chance to mix and mingle. Our Founding Fathers had this in mind when setting up a representative democracy rather than allowing a monarchy that some wanted George Washington to assume.

Last week was a textbook example of a time for necessary confrontation. Given the press and controversy around House Bill 1067, which, if passed, would have dramatically cut the amount of state reimbursement for Native American tuition waivers at Fort Lewis College, I’d like to give you my view of what happened in the thankfully short life that this bill had.

I’m not in the same party as the bill sponsor or the governor’s administration, but I also have a lot of good bills that I want to see survive the legislative session. Therefore, I don’t pick a fight just for the sake of fighting with the other side.

However, HB 1067 definitely had to do with Native Americans in my district which you can plainly see from the title of the bill. It reads “Concerning a requirement that the state fund 100 percent of the cost of instruction for nonresident Native American students enrolled at Fort Lewis College.”

In talking with fellow legislators about the bill, many found the most striking and disturbing thing about it was the isolated way a proposed budget cut was being made to one college and to an obligation that remains unique in Colorado to Fort Lewis College’s establishment as an education institution.

Plain and simple, there was a 1911 contract between the State of Colorado and the federal government. The deal was Colorado accepted the original Fort Lewis land and buildings for free, and in turn, committed to providing free tuition for the education of Native American students there. In the 1970s, Colorado tried to unilaterally change the terms of the tuition waiver and twice lost the case in court,

This year, HB 1067 again tried to change the terms of the waiver, but was also fatally flawed. When you try to change the terms of a contract, you need at the table the parties who entered into it in the first place. If changes are to be made, the federal government needs to be renegotiating the contract with Colorado. The college is but a third party who receives the benefits and obligations of the contract.

What also generated the massive outcry was the reality that Fort Lewis could not possibly absorb a unilateral change of the contract amounting to a cut of the $1.8 million without severely impacting the education of all students at Fort Lewis. Remember that this cut would be in addition to the twice as large cut to Fort Lewis proposed in the regular budget process this year.

At no time did I view the bill as racially motivated and in the time I’ve known the bill sponsor, Rep. Karen Middleton, she has struck me as one very experienced in, and a great advocate for, higher education. She didn’t know the history and importance of the Native American students at Fort Lewis or the unique obligation taken on by the 1911 contract. I appreciate her willingness to take in information that was new to her on short notice and committing to withdraw her bill.

While the information was new to Rep. Middleton, it wasn’t new to the Ritter administration. In addition to the FLC officials meetings with them, I also met in December, nearly a month before the bill was introduced, to raise serious concerns about the proposed FLC cuts, including to the tuition waiver.

Thank you to everyone who called and wrote about their opposition to the bill and to the FLC students who were ready to head to the Capitol. Adding your voice to the democratic process matters very much indeed.