Governor says she’ll push for tribal education trust fund

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Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham speaks to a crowd gathered for American Indian Day at the Roundhouse on Feb. 2, 2024. Credit: Bella Davis/New Mexico In Depth

As New Mexico lawmakers decide how to prioritize spending during another year of historic revenue, Pueblo leaders say they “do not appreciate” being forced to choose between a tribal education trust fund and money for infrastructure on tribal lands. 

A letter Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham sent late last week asking for their input on funding priorities put them in that position, they told her in a letter Wednesday. Having to pick one or the other is “fundamentally wrong and adverse to the commitments of partnership that we have made with you and state legislative leadership,” wrote the All Pueblo Council of Governors, which represents 19 Pueblos in New Mexico and one in Texas. 

Instead, each initiative should be funded at $50 million, the council wrote. 

In response to questions from New Mexico In Depth on Thursday, the governor’s office provided the letter from the council and said the governor will work with the Legislature to deliver on the council’s request. 

It’s the first indication that Lujan Grisham will back the trust fund proposal, which would give tribes more money and control over how they educate their own children. 

But it’s not a total win. 

Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, stands in his office at the Roundhouse on Jan. 25, 2023. Lente, chair of the House Taxation and Revenue Committee, is sponsoring a proposal designed to give tribes more money and control over the education of Indigenous children. Credit: Bella Davis/New Mexico In Depth

The fund’s sponsor, Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, is seeking a $100 million trust fund, rather than $50 million. 

The House Budget includes $50 million, following the Legislative Finance Committee’s recommendation before the legislative session began. Lente and House Speaker Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, said they hope the Senate will make up the other half. 

“Nothing is ever promised,” Lente said, but now that the House has sent the $10.1 billion budget to state senators, it’s “incumbent upon, hopefully, them to recognize the value.” 

Sen. George Muñoz, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, told New Mexico In Depth on Friday afternoon he hasn’t been involved in discussions about the Senate kicking in the other half. If the state were to create such a fund, it would need a much larger investment than $100 million to produce enough interest to meet the needs, said Muñoz, a Democrat who represents significant Navajo and Zuni communities in western New Mexico.

That said, Munoz indicated he supported the idea.  

“Is it a good idea? Yes. Should we do it? Yes, but let’s figure a long-term goal and let’s move from there,” he said. 

Speaking about the council’s response to Lujan Grisham, Lente said he’s “proud to stand with them shoulder to shoulder.”

Last Friday, Lujan Grisham sent a letter to James Mountain, who was the secretary-designate of the state Indian Affairs Department before leaving the agency about a month ago and becoming the governor’s senior policy advisor for tribal affairs. Mountain, a former governor of San Ildefonso Pueblo, was recently elected chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors.

It appeared, the governor wrote, that the Legislature was considering the proposed education trust fund to be the “tribal package” for the year, in lieu of a capital outlay package for infrastructure. Capital outlay typically pays for brick-and-mortar projects. The governor’s office did not answer a question from New Mexico In Depth about which lawmakers had given her that impression. 

“Thus, it feels as if we are being forced to choose between the two initiatives,” Lujan Grisham wrote, adding she was seeking Mountain’s “guidance on how best to inform the Legislature of the investments that would most impact your communities.” 

The council, while noting that individual governors may submit their own letters, responded on Wednesday, writing they “do not appreciate being placed in a position that forces us to have to choose between funding for our children’s education versus funding for critical infrastructure needs for our communities.”

The governors urged Lujan Grisham to work with lawmakers to fund both the trust fund and a capital package. 

The House Education Committee passed the trust fund bill on Wednesday with an amendment. The original bill would have created a task force of nine tribal representatives, who would be charged with creating a distribution formula. Under the amendment, representatives of all 23 tribes in the state would come together to decide on the makeup of the group. 

The House Appropriations and Finance Committee listed the bill on its Friday agenda but hadn’t heard it at the time of publication. 

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