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ASSET bill headed to House

Updated 10:30 a.m. April 18 – The Senate Monday gave final approval to Senate Bill 11-126 on a 20-15 party-line vote. There was no debate.

With preliminary Senate approval behind them, supporters of the ASSET bill are looking ahead to a tougher challenge in the Republican-controlled House.

The preliminary consideration debate of more than two hours Friday was the most spirited so far this year on an education bill. The Senate gave preliminary approval  SB 11-126 on a party line 20-13 vote.

Supporters, led by Democratic Sens. Angela Giron of Pueblo and Mike Johnston of Denver, argued that the bill represents basic fairness to students who’ve graduated from Colorado high schools but face high financial barriers to attending college. They also said putting more students through college would be an economic benefit to the state. (That’s why they’ve nicknamed it the ASSET bill – Advancing Students for a Stronger Economy Tomorrow.)

“Far too many kids and far too many families can’t dream beyond high school,” Giron said, “The heart of this bill is opportunity.”

Republican opponents maintained it’s illegal to give state benefits to undocumented people and that the bill’s promise of tuition “unsubsidized” by state taxpayers is false.

“This is a state subsidy for those who have broken the law,” said Sen. Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, who was echoed by other Republicans.

“What this bill is about is giving one more incentive to another generation of foreigners to come to this country illegally,” said Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch.

Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, argued that the bill is “taking human hostages in the big policy battle over federal immigration policy” and that it offers “false hope” to undocumented students because they won’t be able to work legally after graduation. “The compassion in this bill is an empty gesture.”

Johnston reacted strongly to that last comment, saying, “There is nothing in the least bit symbolic” about the bill.

“To say that it’s immoral to give children a chance to improve their education … is beyond me,” said Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder.

The debate became emotional at times, with Giron and Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, choking up a bit as they argued in support.

“It’s very painful for me” to hear immigrants described as criminals, Guzman said. She added that undocumented people in her west Denver neighborhood frequently ask her for work and odd jobs, but that she declines. “I don’t want to get in trouble as a senator for helping undocumented kids.”

“I’ll get it together here,” Giron said as she began her closing statement.

Johnston, noting that many undocumented students were brought to the country at very young ages, said denying them this opportunity is “visiting the sins of the father on the son.”

The bill would cover students who’ve attended a Colorado high school for at least three years, been admitted to a state college within a year of graduating high school or earning a GED and who complete affidavits saying they’ve applied for lawful status or intend to do so when eligible. (A Democratic amendment added on the floor would require an affidavit be filed before a student is eligible.) An estimated 700 students a year would be affected.

The bill actually would create a third, more expensive 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 bill is projected to raise up to $1.28 million a year in tuition revenue for state colleges.

Johnston estimated the annual “premium” that would be paid by an undocumented student at $2,000.

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, referring to what he called “the basic dishonesty of the bill,” complained about use of the phrase “unsubsidized tuition” in the measure. He argued that resident tuition and stipends don’t fully cover the cost of undergraduate education, so undocumented students would in fact be subsidized by the taxpayers through other forms of state support to colleges.

He offered several amendments on that issue, but all were defeated. As they kept falling, he said, “I’m not going to give up on this.”

Speaking with reporters after the vote, Johnston acknowledged that “We have a hill to climb” in the House but “We still have prospects.” He added that “The challenge will be in the committee” to which the bill is assigned.

A similar measure, Senate Bill 09-170, died in the Senate  April 6, 2009, on a 16-18 vote. Five Democratic senators voted no then, but only three of those, Morgan Carroll of Aurora, Linda Newell of Littleton and Lois Tochtrop of Thornton, are still in the Senate. (See our archive story on that vote.) The three voted for the bill Friday, along with every other Democrat. All Republican senators who were present voted no. Mitchell and Kevin Lundberg of Berthod were excused and not present for the vote.

For background, read the bill, review the fiscal note and see our story about the Senate Education Committee hearing in February.

Some 11 states have such laws or are considering them, including Republican-controlled Texas, a fact Johnston mentioned repeatedly.