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Undocumented tuition bill moves ahead

The Senate Education Committee Thursday passed Senate Bill 11-126, the measure that would extend resident tuition eligibility to undocumented students who meet certain conditions.

The 5-2 vote came after nearly three hours of testimony and discussion. (See bottom of the story for the roll call.)

The bill next goes to the Senate Finance Committee, which is chaired by one of the prime sponsors.

“It has always been the right thing to do, but now it is the economically smart thing to do,” said freshman Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, one of the bill’s prime sponsors.

Supporters of this year’s bill are making the pitch that it would be good for the economy because it would increase the state’s educated workforce and bring extra revenue to state colleges and universities.

The bill is “both the right thing to do and the wise thing,” said Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, the other Senate prime sponsor.

Witnesses supporting the bill included businessman Alex Cranberg, Metro State President Steve Jordan and Jim Polsfut, chair of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.

Cranberg, a noted voucher proponent and supporter of helping at-risk students, said, “I don’t think any of us in this room should stand in the way of these young people.”

Also testifying in support were representatives of the Bell Policy Center, the Associated Students of Colorado State University, the Associated Students of Colorado, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Colorado Education Association and the League of Woman Voters.

Only one student testified in support. Aminta Menjivar of Denver is now in college and recently received residency documents.

Johnston, who organized much of the testimony, said other, undocumented students were discouraged from testifying because of concerns that bill opponents would copy names from the witness sign-up sheet and turn them in to authorities. There were well over a dozen witnesses in favor.

In contrast to most legislative hearings, the session was sprinkled with religious references.

Cranmer quoted the Old Testament book of Proverbs at one point, and the Rev. Bill Calhoun of Montview Presbyterian Church, jokingly asked at one point, “Why should people of faith support this bill? I believe God does.”

“Thank you for your homily. I think all of us have a pass next Sunday,” quipped chair Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins.

That led into a brief and friendly theological back-and-forth between Calhoun and Sen. Scott Renfroe, D-Greeley, who’s a deacon at his church.

And another witness quoted from the New Testament.

There were four opposition witnesses, who struck a somewhat discordant tone. One, Stan Weekes of the Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform, startled the packed hearing room when he opened by saying,”We need to have the sergeants at arms clear the room of everyone but the public” – meaning anyone who wasn’t a citizen.

Bacon kept his cool and said, “We’re not going to have the sergeants go through and check everybody’s papers.”

A similar bill passed Senate Ed two years ago but was defeated on the Senate floor. Chances of Senate passage are considered better this year, but prospects are uncertain in the Republican-controlled House. The measure has no GOP cosponsors in either house.

The sponsors have dubbed the measure the ASSET bill and are pitching the economic development benefits of having more students go to college.

A legislative staff analysis estimates only about 740 students would be directly affected by the bill, which they also estimate could raise tuition revenues from about $215,000 a year to about $430,000. Total enrollment at state colleges and universities is about 185,000.

The bill sets the following criteria for eligible students:

  • Attendance at a Colorado high school for at least three years
  • Admission to a state college within a year of graduating high school or earning a GED.
  • Filing of an affidavit saying the student has applied for lawful status or intends to do so when eligible.

The bill actually would create a third level of tuition, since students covered by the bill would not be eligible for College Opportunity Fund stipends or state need-based financial aid so would pay more than other resident students. (The stipends are an off-the-top tuition discount that varies year-to-year based on legislative decisions.)

Average annual resident tuition at research universities is $13,325 a year and $10,535 at four-year colleges, according to the legislative staff note. It’s about $2,900 at community colleges.

Non-resident tuition varies widely. Trustees are free to set it where they wish depending on the financial strategies of individual colleges. At Metro State, which works hard to attract non-traditional and minority students, resident tuition was $2,850 in 2009-10 while non-residents paid $12,343. Non-resident tuition at the University of Colorado-Boulder is more than double that.

Committee roll call

Yes – Democrats Bacon, Evie Hudak of Westminster, Rollie Heath of Boulder, Johnston and Jeanne Nicholson of Gilpin County.

No – Republicans Scott Renfroe of Greeley and Nancy Spence of Centennial.

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, wasn’t present for the vote.

For the record

The House Thursday gave final approval to the package of 2010-11 budget balancing bills, and it now will be up to the Joint Budget Committee to work out a compromise on some key differences between the houses.

The highest profile disagreement is the partisan fight over whether to take $4 million in cash funds from new Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler. While the issue doesn’t directly involve education, the JBC may have to go looking elsewhere, including in education, if that money isn’t available for balancing. The money is in a broader cash funds transfer measure, Senate Bill 11-164.

Other balancing bills of interest to education are:

• Senate Bill 11-137: This bill involves the Department of Education budget. The JBC reduced Colorado Counselor Corps spending by about $750,000, the Senate restored it and the House took it back out. The House didn’t tinker with the Senate amendment that added spending authority for the Start Smart school breakfast program.

• Senate Bill 11-156: This measure allows the 2010-11 reserve to be set at 2.3 percent of the general fund. House Democrats won a modest victory when they attached an amendment that requires any surplus over that reserve to go to the State Education Fund.

The House passed without amendment Senate Bill 11-140, which makes technical changes in the Department of Higher Education budget, and Senate Bill 11-157, containing changes to the 2010 School Finance Act. No changes were made in the original JBC version of that bill, which reduces state school support by the amount districts are receiving from federal Edujobs grants and which does not fund fall 2010 enrollment increases.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information