The Colorado House wrangled for more than three hours but finally gave preliminary approval Tuesday to Senate Bill 13-033, the measure that would make undocumented students eligible for resident tuition rates at state colleges and universities.
“This is a historic day,” said sponsor Rep. Angela Williams, D-Denver, noting that it was the first time in seven tries that such a bill has passed on the House floor. In prior years, most such bills have died in the Senate or in House committees.
Much later in the debate, veteran Rep. Cherylin Peniston, D-Westminster, said, “We are making history with this bill, and I am proud to be part of history.”
The bill is expected to receive final approval later this week. Democrats hold a majority in the House, and at least two Republicans have indicated they’ll vote for the bill. After that it goes to Gov. John Hickenlooper, who supports it.
But that prospect didn’t deter from Republicans from proposing a long string of amendments – all unsuccessful – and generally giving Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, a hard time. Duran is another prime sponsor and did most of the heavy lifting at the podium Tuesday.
Republicans argued that the bill needed a clear statement of its potential cost to the state, that it should be referred to a statewide public vote, that it conflicted with 2006 state immigration legislation and that undocumented college grads are still in danger of not getting jobs, despite President Obama’s 2012 “deferred action” executive order affecting young immigrants. Republicans also tried an unsuccessful amendment that would have granted in-state tuition to residents of any state.
Bill opponents turned repeatedly to the argument that the bill’s language doesn’t reflect its true costs. The bill would make undocumented students eligible for the tuition discount that comes from the College Opportunity Fund, which is supported by state tax dollars.
Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen and a member of the Joint Budget Committee, made the argument several times, so strongly that she repeatedly reminded the House that she actually supports the bill.
Duran acknowledged the bill will cost money but that the amounts didn’t need to be specified in the bill and that costs will be handled in the normal course of legislative business next year when higher ed funding is retroactively adjusted to account for actual enrollment figures.
Duran and other supporters have repeatedly argued that the bill will be a financial gain for colleges because of the tuition payments from undocumented students that otherwise wouldn’t have gone to college because of cost. Undocumented students now can enroll if they pay non-resident rates, which on average are three times the amount that residents pay.
Early in the debate, Duran made a reference to the number of religious groups that support the bill, a remark some Republicans took to mean that she felt bill opponents didn’t love all groups as much as supporters do. Later, Duran said, “There is an air of arrogance” about Republican comments on the measure.
GOP speakers kept reminding her of those remarks.
Minority Leader Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, said, “Rep. Duran, we bring forward concerns on this bill. … It’s not because we don’t love all of God’s children like you suggest. It’s not because we’re arrogant like you suggest.”
Later, Rep. Lori Saine, R-Dacono, quipped. “I thinks God needs to be in the well more often, and I think we need to talk about love more often in the well.” (The well is the area on the House floor where representatives stand while speaking.)
Several Democrats went to the well to voice support for the measure. “This bill does not give students false hopes,” said Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder. “It gives them an education, and an education is a valuable thing.”
Other than Gerou, Rep. Kevin Priola of Henderson was the only Republican to speak in favor. While acknowledging the concerns of other Republicans, Priola said, “I see still the underlying wisdom in the bill. … Immigrant children are hungry to succeed, and we need them in this nation.”
To be eligible for resident tuition students must have attended a Colorado high school for three years prior to graduation or have finished a GED, be admitted to a state college or university and provide an affidavit stating they have applied for lawful residency in the U.S. or will apply as soon as they are eligible to do so.
Legislative fiscal analysts estimate the bill will raise $2 million in additional tuition revenue in 2013-14 and $3 million in 2014-15. The analysis projects 500 students would take advantage of the law next school year, with 250 more a year joining the program through 2016-17.
For the record
Before turning to the ASSET bill, the House gave final approval to three other education-related measures. They are:
House Bill 13-1220, which requires that individual educator evaluations and related documents remain confidential. Passed 41-24
Senate Bill 13-002, which defines BOCES as local education agencies for the purpose of applying for federal grants. Passed 53-12
Senate Bill 13-031, which clarifies funding arrangements for dropout recovery programs run at community colleges. Passed 54-11