In one of the most unusual decisions by the Legislature this session, senators from both sides of the aisle on Monday declined to move for final Senate floor debate on a measure seeking to create a reduced tuition rate for undocumented immigrants, despite the bill being one of the most controversial and talked about bills of the year.
After more than two months languishing on the Senate calendar, Senate Bill 15 — the so-called “Advancing Students for a Stronger Economy Tomorrow” (Colorado ASSET) measure — passed the Senate on final consideration on a Democratic party-line vote of 20-14. The legislation had first passed the Senate Education Committee at the very beginning of the session on Jan. 26.
The bill, sponsored by Sens. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, and Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, would create a so-called “standard-rate” for undocumented students who have attended a public or private high school in Colorado for three or more years, and have been admitted to a college or university in Colorado within one year of graduating from high school. Undocumented students would need to submit an affidavit to the college or university stating that they have applied, or will apply for lawful residential status in the United States.
Political observers both inside and outside the Capitol all agreed that because of the controversial nature of SB 15, and because it had been delayed for so long, that there would surely be spirited debate over the proposal. Considering last week the Legislature held not one, but two lengthy floor debates on much less controversial bipartisan legislation seeking to reform the so-called “direct file” system and require judicial review for prosecuting youth defendants as adults, it seemed peculiar to many that just a few days later SB 15 would go without any debate at all. In fact, just moments after SB 15 passed on Monday, lawmakers held 45 minutes worth of debate on another bipartisan piece of legislation that would prohibit schools from offering foods with trans fat.
Supporters and critics alike were preparing for similar impassioned debate on SB 15, but when it passed without so much as a peep, even the sponsors of the bill were a bit surprised.
“I came ready to defend the bill and talk about its benefits,” said Johnston, who often makes eloquent speeches on the floor in support or against legislation. “I mean, we just spent 45 minutes on trans fat.”
In prior sessions, the issue of tuition equity has been a polarizing and inflaming issue, with Republicans arguing that offering undocumented students a discounted tuition rate only legitimizes illegal immigration. Democrats have mostly maintained that the proposal would offer undocumented students a pathway to contributing to the state’s economy, which is both good for the students themselves and the state as a whole.
Johnston believes that the reason the bill passed the Senate without debate is because many of the arguments that have come up in prior years have subsided.
“People don’t think that there are good arguments left to make against this bill. I think if they had, they’d be ready to make them, and so I think that as it becomes more and more apparent that this is an idea whose time has come, I think that there’s less and less good arguments that can be made against it,” Johnston said following the vote. “I was certainly surprised, but pleasantly surprised.”
But Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, pointed out that the measure still passed on a party-line vote, which indicates to him that there is still significant opposition and concern surrounding tuition equity proposals.
“Is he writing fairy tales now for school children?” Cadman asked concerning Johnston’s comments.
The minority leader shrugged off accusations that Republicans were frightened to let Johnston debate the bill on third reading, noting that the Republican caucus never had discussions around that. He said the lack of debate on SB 15 likely had more to do with lawmakers not wanting to repeat debate on third readings. But then Cadman acknowledged that such debate still happens all the time, such as last Thursday during debate on the direct-file legislation.
“Third readings have taken on a kind of different dynamic this year, and maybe people are being conscientious of that,” he said.
Cadman argued that Republicans oppose tuition equity legislation for undocumented students because, “You’re providing a benefit to someone who doesn’t legally deserve it.”
Sponsors hope that two major differences to similar legislation in the past will compel the Republican-controlled House to back the proposal this year. Sponsors are relying on the fact that in-state tuition would not be applied to undocumented students. Instead, the separate “standard-rate” category would be created. Sponsors believe qualifying students would actually pay about $2,000 more per year than in-state students.
Sponsors are also hopeful that university support for the legislation will push it through the House. University systems themselves would be allowed to decide whether to opt into the program or not, and that autonomy has compelled many systems to support the proposal, including the University of Colorado, Colorado State University and Colorado Community College systems.
Where will it go?
The question remained early this week where House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, would assign the legislation. As the Speaker, McNulty has the ability to assign the bill to a so-called “kill committee,” where it would be squashed before making it to the House floor for debate.
Supporters are hoping that the bill is assigned to the House Education Committee, chaired by Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs. Massey is the only known Republican to have voiced public support for the bill, and his vote could send the legislation to the full House for debate, marking the first time tuition equity legislation would make it to both chambers for debate. With Republicans controlling the House by only one seat, Massey’s vote could ultimately send the bill on to the governor.
Massey said on Tuesday that he hopes that Colorado ASSET makes its way to his House Education Committee, but that he has no guarantees from House Republican leadership. He said if the bill makes its way to his committee, then he is likely to support the measure.
“I’m very supportive of the concept this year,” he said. “I hate to prejudice anything by coming out and making a statement, but I hope that it comes to my committee where it will get a fair hearing, and we’ll see where it goes from there.”
Meanwhile, McNulty on Thursday assigned the legislation to House Education and Appropriations. The measure will likely pass out of Education, but its future in Appropriations is uncertain.
Lynea Hansen, spokeswoman for the Higher Education Access Alliance (HEAA), which is heavily supporting SB 15, said she is hopeful that a growing list of supporters will finally send the bill to the governor for his signature.
“More and more Republicans are joining us in supporting an affordable education for all of Colorado’s graduates,” she said.
If the measure does make its way to Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, he has signaled that he would sign the bill, going as far as to offer public support for the idea, though Hickenlooper acknowledged that he had not read the entire bill yet and is waiting for a final draft.
“The goal to allow kids to pursue their education through college without any subsidy from the taxpayers seems reasonable,” he told The Statesman on March 12.
“Obviously we need to resolve the immigration issue on a national level… but in the meantime, we should let kids finish their education,” Hickenlooper concluded.