Immigrant tuition bill sneaks out of panel

By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

When the cat’s away, the mice will play.

Early Wednesday morning, Senate Democrats, led by Abel Tapia, of Pueblo, and Chris Romer, of Denver, pushed Senate Bill 170, which would allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at public universities and colleges. Democrats hold a 6-4 majority on the Senate Appropriations Committee, where the bill has been sitting for weeks. However, Sen. Moe Keller, D-Wheat Ridge, doesn’t support the legislation, and the Democrats had been stalling a vote out of fear of a tie, which would kill it.

With or without adequate support, the bill had been expected to come before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Friday.

But things can change quickly at the Capitol, and the Democrats found an unexpected opening.

Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, one of the key votes against the SB 170, was out of town early this week on a family emergency, returning Thursday. His absence gave
Democrats an opportunity to call a committee vote on the bill Wednesday morning.

It passed on a 5-4 vote, with Keller as the lone Democrat who joined Republicans in opposition.

Sen. Mike Kopp, R-Littleton, asked Democrats to delay consideration of the bill until Harvey’s return on Friday. Romer, who did not respond to The Statesman’s request for a Thursday interview, said he didn’t see a reason to delay the bill because it “has a positive fiscal impact” and thus should be moved to the full body for a vote.

All day Wednesday, Republicans and talk radio hosts decried the move as political gamesmanship and underhanded partisan strategy.

“It’s an outrage,” Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, said on the Peter Boyles Show on KHOW directly following the vote.

But was it?

“Both parties use the rules to their advantage in obscure ways, and they always have,” said John Straayer, a Colorado State University political science professor and an expert on the Colorado Legislature.

“It might get some publicity, and some people will notice it. But I don’t think it’s a huge deal to the general public,” Straayer continued. “I think it’s noticed by political junkies and insiders, but I don’t think most voters have enough context of the procedures of the Legislature to see it as a major issue.”

Not every Democrat may have been happy with the move, though, Straayer said.

Because illegal immigration is an emotional political topic and because the 2010 election is around the corner, many Democrats in competitive districts would prefer not to have to vote on the legislation. Although some voters who oppose the legislation might have been persuaded to change their minds, it would be a tough sell.

“I don’t think there is any question that there are some members of the Democratic Party that don’t want to vote on this, and — more importantly — have to try and explain it to voters,” Straayer said. “This is your classic brochure, bumper-sticker, 10-second-ad issue for those that attack on the negative side of it. It’s far easier to attack this legislation than it is to defend it.”

Gov. Bill Ritter has said he will support the bill if it makes it to his desk, but he has not been a strong force behind it. In fact, the only statement Ritter has released on the legislation came not from his office but through Padres y Jovenes Unidos (Parents and Children United) and the Higher Education Access Alliance, two groups that support the bill.

“For me, this is about building a talented and well-educated workforce and strengthening our economy,” Ritter said in the statement.

Even after it passed successfully out of the Appropriations Committee Wednesday afternoon, the bill’s ability to make it through the Legislature is unsure. A large battle is expected on the Senate floor during second reading, and it still has to pass the House before going to Ritter.

Jason@coloradostatesman.com