DENVER– A controversial bill to grant in-state higher education tuition to illegal immigrants passed Monday in the Senate on a 23-12 vote – despite unanswered questions about the cost to Colorado taxpayers and the false promise of a path to citizenship for illegal students.
State Sen. Kevin Lundberg (R-Berthoud) said Senate Bill 33 is “small step down the road of amnesty and amnesty doesn’t work.”
The personal stories of illegal-immigrant high school students are “persuasive,” said Lundberg, but the bill implies that the state legislature can magically wave a wand to change federal immigration laws when the teens graduate from college.
“This is a false hope,” declared Lundberg. “The federal government needs to fix this problem.”
But, state Sen. Michael Johnston (D-Denver), a co-sponsor of SB 33, said the bill’s passage to the House “will light up cell phones all over high school classes in the state of Colorado.”
The bill would enable illegal-immigrant students who have lived in Colorado for three years – and graduated from high school or earned a GED – to attend higher education institutions with subsidies given to legal in-state residents. However, the fiscal note is inconclusive about how much money from the general fund will be required in the next fiscal year to subsidize the taxpayer-funded College Opportunity Fund, which offsets tuition costs for legal students to attend higher education institutions.
The controversial bill set off more than three hours of debate on Friday that spun the term illegal aliens into sci-fi flick inspired phrases as “a galaxy far, far away” and a “Jedi mind trick.”
“When they are called illegal aliens, they get the sense that they are not valued,” said state Sen. Evie Hudak (D-Westminster). “Why do they not count as much as any other student? Why are their lives and their futures not as meaningful as others?”
“We started the morning with a conversation about the Jedis and Star Wars,” said state Sen. Jessie Ulibarri (D-Commerce City). “And I am very proudly a nerd.”
“We’re talking about people in a galaxy who are far, far away. People who are not like us,” said Ulibarri of the Republican senators who oppose the bill.
The people who would benefit from the bill are not aliens, Ulibarri said, “It is those people in our schools, in our neighborhoods, in our families.”
Lundberg said the majority of his district opposes the bill because it rewards in-state tuition to those whose parents came here as illegal immigrants.
“It’s not some sort of xenophobic, irrational fear,” said Lundberg. “It’s a basic respect for the way the law works and the desire that we maintain that rule of law in the future.”
State Sen. Scott Renfroe (R-Greeley) said citizenship should first be achieved through federal immigration reform. He questioned the validity of illegal immigrants qualifying for in-state tuition by signing an affidavit of their intent to pursue citizenship when that path is not available.
SB33 opponents questioned an amendment to the bill passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee that states $502.6 million from the general fund is appropriated for the college opportunity fund for FY 2012-13.
The report estimates that an additional $930,000 will be needed to subsidize illegal immigrant students’ tuition in FY 2013-14, and nearly $1.4 million in FY 2014-15.
“The fiscal impact of offering in-state tuition rates to additional students is uncertain, because there is limited data on the number of additional students who will be affected by this change and which institutions they will attend,” stated the report.
The guesstimate predicts 500 illegal immigrants will be added to the current 141,905 legal in-state students who are eligible and receive higher education tuition stipends through the college opportunity fund.
“It is the intent of the general assembly that any resulting increase in college opportunity fund student stipends will be offset through the regular supplemental appropriations process,” concluded the committee’s report.
State Sen. Kent Lambert (R-Colorado Springs) attempted to amend the bill to obtain a valid appropriations report – but his efforts failed.
“This amendment is intended to provide clarity, to reverse the Jedi mind trick of the appropriations report,” declared Lambert in a last attempt after the bill had passed.
Lambert wanted to amend the Committee of the Whole report to show the Senate Appropriations Committee’s report failed instead of being passed by the Senate. Democrats had asserted earlier that the report had been amended to clearly indicate the fiscal impact – but there were no changes in financial figures.
Johnston asserted that the bill “requires no additional appropriations outside of the Long Bill” for FY 2013-14 that will be introduced for approval next month.
But, state Sen. Pat Steadman (D-Denver) then admitted, “The appropriations report does not declare this is free. It will be funded in the Long Bill.”
“I’m glad that my colleague said this is not free – this does cost a lot of money,” responded Lambert. “It’s on the record.”
Steadman and Lambert serve on the Joint Budget Committee that crafts the Long Bill, and both know appropriations can be supplemented next year to cover shortages in the 2013-2014 fiscal year – which is a main contention of the bill’s opponents.
“I realize that this is going to cost money, but it’s time to realize we are melting pot,” said Larry Crowder (R-Alamosa), explaining his support for SB 33.
Because America is a beacon of opportunity, he said, “We need to do everything we can for everybody we can.”
The measure is sponsored by Democrat state Sens. Johnston and Angela Giron of Pueblo as well as state Reps. Crisanta Duran and Angela Williams, both of Denver.
The bill passed Monday with Republican state Senators Crowder, Greg Brophy of Wray and Owen Hill of Colorado Springs casting aye votes with the majority party. Democrat Sens. Linda Newell of Littleton and Morgan Carroll of Denver voted for SB 33 despite opposing similar bills in the past.