STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
As part of a districtwide “listening tour,” Democratic state Rep. Sal Pace stopped by Fort Lewis College on Friday afternoon to meet with administrators and discuss issues of importance to the college.
Pace is challenging incumbent U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton in Colorado’s sprawling 3rd Congressional District, which stretches from Craig to Trinidad and encompasses half the state’s land area. Both men are FLC alumni; Pace graduated in 1999.
“This school means a lot to me,” said Pace. “I can guarantee I wouldn’t be in the Legislature or running for Congress had I not attended Fort Lewis. It was a formative time.”
High on President Dene Kay Thomas’ priority list was reforming FLC’s Native American tuition waiver to transfer some of the financial burden from Colorado to the federal government.
“You have our number one priority in front of you,” said Thomas, gesturing to a spiral notebook on a conference table summarizing recent legislative attempts at reform.
“There’s so much gridlock in Washington,” Pace said. “But this is a no-brainer. Hopefully I get elected and can start on this issue right off the bat.”
Under an agreement struck more than 100 years ago, the federal government transferred ownership of the Old Fort Lewis property in Hesperus to the state of Colorado, on condition that it remain an institution of learning and offer free tuition for Native American students.
The waiver has put growing fiscal pressure on the state, however, because it must reimburse Fort Lewis $13 million for the tuition of all Native American students, about 85 percent of whom come from out of state.
“Colorado holds legal responsibility. They signed the contract,” Thomas said. “But nobody forsaw the number of out-of-state students.”
Pace also worried that students from middle-income households are being “priced out” of the college market, with tuition hikes rising faster than the rate of inflation.
Bucking a statewide trend, overall Fort Lewis enrollment is up 2.3 percent compared with the 2011-12 academic year, and 10.3 percent among freshmen, said Steve Schwartz, vice president for administration and finance.
Administrators ended the meeting hopeful that a debate between Pace and Tipton, the two alumni, could be scheduled at FLC’s Community Concert Hall sometime in October.
Rocky Mountain PBS has agreed to moderate, and the League of Women Voters would provide logistical support, said Angie Rochat, FLC director of Sponsored Research and Federal Relations.
So far, Tipton has not publicly committed.
Before the meeting, Pace met with the Durango Herald editorial board to outline his agenda if elected. He stressed prioritizing local issues rather than national ones, but acknowledged the difficulties in representing a large district.
“La Plata County is dramatically different than Mesa County or Pueblo County. In the other (Colorado) districts they have one county with a majority of their voters,” he said. “I see it as a virtue. You have to pay attention.”