DENVER–Gov. John Hickenlooper and Lt. Gov. Joseph Garcia learned of the proposed Metro State illegal-immigrant tuition discount weeks before it was approved, prompting questions about whether they were involved in shaping the policy.
Forty of pages of email communications obtained by the Rocky Mountain Foundation show that Garcia received at least two drafts of the proposal from Loretta Martinez, general counsel for the Metropolitan State College Board of Trustees.
In one email, Garcia says he personally informed the governor of the proposed policy more than two weeks before the board voted to approve it in June. The foundation obtained the emails through a Colorado Open Records Act request.
“Steve said you’d be sending me the tuition proposal to my personal email,” said Garcia in a May 24 email to Martinez. “He already walked Matt and me through it and I have briefed the governor.”
The Metro State board voted June 7 to establish discount tuition rates for illegal alien students who meet certain criteria. The rate is higher than that paid by Colorado residents, but lower than the price for non-residents, even if those students are U.S. citizens.
Republican legislators blasted the board’s vote, saying it usurped the authority of the state legislature, which has previously rejected bills to grant in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants.
Attorney General John Suthers issued a nonbinding opinion June 19 saying that the tuition-rate plan violates federal and state law.
Even so, Metro State spokesman Tim Carroll said last week the university plans to proceed with the discount tuition rate for the 2012-13 school year. Metro officials have said the legal advice they have received indicates the plan is on sound footing.
“It’s definitely moving forward,” said Carroll.
Robert McGuire, attorney for the Rocky Mountain Foundation, said the emails raise questions about the involvement of Colorado’s top elected officials in formulating the policy. The foundation is weighing whether to challenge the tuition plan in court.
He pointed to a May 24 email sent from Martinez to Garcia indicating that the lieutenant governor was privy to discussions and documents regarding the proposal’s development even before they were made available to board members.
“Joe: As requested, please find attached the draft tuition proposal in more mature form that we began discussing with you the last several weeks,” says Martinez in the email. “We would appreciate it if you would not forward this document as it was developed for our upcoming Board meeting and members of our own Board have not seen it yet.”
At the end, she says, “Sorry for the delay in getting it to you.”
McGuire said the exchange indicates that the proposal was more than a homegrown effort by Metro officials to reduce costs for illegal immigrants.
“Clearly this implies there’s some back-and-forth between them, and he [Garcia] is involved in the formulation of this plan,” said McGuire. “She says other members of the board haven’t seen it–that implies outside influences helped derive this policy.”
McGuire said he submitted the CORA request because “we wanted to push the crack in the door and see how this decision was made, see whose interests were being served.”
“The innocent explanation is he [Garcia] is interested in it from an education angle,” said McGuire. “The non-innocent explanation is that he’s trying to push through a policy that could result in some political advantage for him. You have a partisan elected official involved when other board members don’t know it’s coming down the pike.”
In addition to his duties as the state’s second in command, Garcia serves as executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education. That role may explain why he was consulted about the tuition proposal prior to the vote.
Garcia spokeswoman Julie McCluskie acknowledged that Garcia “did receive information about the plan in advance,” but added, “He was not involved in the decision–he was informed of the decision by Metro State.”
Hickenlooper has distanced himself from the policy, saying he respects the attorney general’s opinion and would have preferred to see a legislative solution, rather than “to proceed institution by institution.”
Garcia, meanwhile, has downplayed his knowledge of the proposal. The day of the vote, he expressed no opinion on the policy except to tell the Colorado Commission on Higher Education that he believed Metro was within its rights to set non-resident tuition.
His director of legislative affairs, Chad Marturano, said in a June 7 email to EdNews Colorado that Garcia “doesn’t have a position, nor has his office, or DHE done any thorough legal analysis on the matter.”
Marturano went on to say that the Colorado Commission on Higher Education “was not consulted prior to the Metro board action today although DHE leadership was recently informed of Metro’s intent to present the issue to its board . . . When DHE leadership was informed, there was no approval of Metros [sic] intent, nor was any approval sought.”
Former Rep. Tom Tancredo, who heads the Rocky Mountain Foundation, said the emails show that the governor and lieutenant governor gave at least tacit approval to Metro’s plan to reduce tuition costs for illegal immigrants.
“If they disagreed with the proposal, they would have said, ‘No, don’t do it,’” said Tancredo.