Tribal education trust fund is dead, legislative sponsor says

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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 sponsor of a proposal to create a trust fund that would’ve given tribes in New Mexico millions of dollars to build education programs said Wednesday that he is pulling the bill from the Senate, meaning it is effectively dead. 

With less than 24 hours in the 2024 legislative session, Rep. Derrick Lente, a Democrat from Sandia Pueblo, says he decided to pull House Bill 134 after learning a number of amendments were going to be introduced on the Senate floor. 

The proposal would have created a trust fund with a $50 million appropriation, generating interest for the 23 tribes in New Mexico to spend on language programs and other needs related to education. It garnered bipartisan support in the House of Representatives, and a number of tribal leaders, Indigenous students, and educators spoke about how impactful it would be at committee hearings throughout the legislative session.

But how the money would be distributed was the source of significant debate this year — and in the 2023 legislative session, when Lente unsuccessfully pushed for the fund. The Navajo Nation in particular had concerns about how to ensure the funds were distributed equitably. 

“As much as I thought that we were good to go and how it’s received so much support through the House process and even through Senate Finance,” Lente said, “we’ve come to a point where the discussion amongst tribes is a bit too great for me to want to comfortably have that discussion publicly in the Senate and I don’t think it’s fair for tribes to be put in that position.”

Lente would not say where the Senate amendments came from and what they would do. But he said he’s asked Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth to not pull it up for debate in the Senate “out of respect for the tribes.” 

“I want to make sure that I respect 100% the tribal sovereignty of each pueblo, nation and tribe in New Mexico. And you can quote me on that,” Lente said.

Asked if he would bring the proposal back next year, Lente said he’s not sure.

Under the original version of the bill he introduced in January, a task force made up of nine members representing tribal communities would have crafted a distribution formula. That requirement was later taken out in response to concerns from the Navajo Nation Council.

Instead, an amendment required that the formula be “developed in a unanimous consensus process of consultation, collaboration and communication with New Mexico tribes” by June 2025.

The House passed the amended bill unanimously, with a 68-0 vote. 

The state budget for next year is already on Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk, including the $50 million for the tribal education trust fund. But the use of that money by tribes was contingent on Lente’s bill passing the Legislature. 
The governor’s office said earlier this month Lujan Grisham would back the fund at the urging of Pueblo leaders.

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