Tuition bill’s death burdens Romer, Groff

By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Watching a bill die is never easy for its sponsor.

After a long, emotional debate on the Senate floor Monday over whether to grant in-state tuition to undocumented graduates of Colorado high schools, five Democrats joined a united Republican Party to defeat Senate Bill 170, sponsored by Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver. The vote destroyed the dreams of hundreds of undocumented students who had hoped to attend college next year but are now unsure if they can afford it.

After the vote, Romer walked into the lobby outside the Senate chamber and saw that disappointment on the faces of students who had gathered there.

“The moments after that vote, going out and seeing the students all burst out in tears was the hardest point of my political life,” Romer said. “It wasn’t because I was sure we were going to win, but because I felt the inadequacy of a democracy that should leave no kid behind. That is a moment that is seared in my soul.”

The impact of the loss on Romer — combined with his belief that the fight for tuition equality can’t fade because of one lost vote — has him trumpeting a new battle to keep the issue alive. Joined by Senate President Peter Groff, D-Denver, Romer said on Tuesday that he is going to continue the battle in coming weeks and during next year’s legislative session.

“These things don’t happen in single bills. They don’t happen in single actions. And today is the beginning of the process to move forward,” Romer said. “I believe we need to continue on this course. Whether it’s amendments to other bills this year or, more importantly, trying to bring it back next year ... it simply is a moral commitment that we have to do.”

The battle to pass a bill that has become a wedge issue both inside and outside the Capitol will not be any easier to win next year than it was this week.

Republicans mounted an emotional and heated stand against SB 170 when it came to the Senate floor on second reading Monday. Challenging Democrats on the legality of passing a law that provides “yet another government benefit to illegal immigrants” the caucus stood firm that Colorado should kill the legislation for both moral and economic reasons.

Claiming passage of the bill would cost taxpayers money or possibly limit the number of legal residents who can attend higher education institutions, Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, called the legislation unconstitutional and a slap in the face to working, legal taxpayers.

“This bill is saying ‘Let’s reward illegal behavior one more time with government money’,” Harvey said. “What about those poor, hardworking families ... that are in this nation legally that want to go to these state schools who now might not be able to afford it because we have taken money out of their pocket in order to give money to an illegal immigrant to get in-state tuition?”

Although the bill had a neutral fiscal note attached, there was much debate about its true cost. Because it is impossible to determine how many undocumented students in Colorado would take advantage of the bill, a true measure of its revenue and expense was not achieved. The bill’s supporters stood firm that the state would incur no additional cost, but even some Democrats — who broke party ranks to oppose the legislation — disagreed.

Sen. Moe Keller, D-Wheat Ridge, the chair of the Joint Budget Committee, refused to comment after the bill died, but had previously said she had concerns about the fiscal ramifications. Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, also refused to comment directly afterward and, instead, pointed reporters to a prepared statement on her online blog where she cited concerns about the fiscal impact.

“I cannot support SB 170 in a climate where the state is cutting or eliminating over $1 billion of benefits to the people and is facing a $300 million cut to higher education, which virtually ends higher education as we know it in the state of Colorado,” Carroll wrote.

“The plight of children who have done nothing wrong nor know no other country as home is a real one, but would not be solved by this bill because, under current federal law, they remain at risk for deportation and have no lawful path to employment,” she continued. “Federal immigration reform is desperately needed to bring a real solution to this and many other problems.”

In addition to Keller and Carroll, Democratic Sens. Lois Tochtrop, of Thornton; Jim Isgar, of Hesperus, and Linda Newell, of Littleton, opposed the bill.

Knowing he was losing key votes from some members in his party, Senate President Peter Groff made a rare and impassioned second reading speech from the well on Monday, asking lawmakers to leave their political ambitions to the wayside and do what is right for the state’s children.

“Now is one of those moments where we can choose leadership and courage... or we could choose to cower behind our political ambition,” Groff said in the speech that was obviously aimed at members of both parties who are known to be planning a run for future political office.

“Those of us who want to run for City Council, those of us who want to run for commissioner, those of us who want to run for attorney general, those of us who want to run for governor and those of us who want to run for Congress, those of us who are more concerned about our own political ambition than what is good for children, (vote for this bill),” Groff said. “I think we are better than the hate-filled e-mails that we have all received. We are better than the hate-filled radio talk show hosts... who are chasing ratings. We can choose to turn our backs on these students, but the world will not.”

Standing with Groff on Tuesday, Romer vowed not to give up on bringing tuition equality to Colorado. The two Democrats talked about the possibility of offering amendments to the legislation this year that would extend concurrent enrollment to all Colorado students — including undocumented ones — to allow for more than five years of high school while allowing them to earn higher education credits. They promised to bring the tuition bill back next year.

“This is issue isn’t done yet,” Groff said. “There are always opportunities to come back and do this. It is difficult sometimes to pass things that are important. Sometimes you have to come back. Whether it’s next year or next week, we are not going to let this issue die.”

Colorado Latino leaders vowed to continue the fight as well during a press conference at the Capitol on Tuesday.

Obviously disheartened by the previous day’s vote, leaders from the Colorado Latino Forum said they will continue to fight for what they say is fair equality in the higher education system and to continue working with lawmakers such as Romer and Groff.

“Yesterday was definitely a day where we were saddened, discouraged and frustrated, but it was also a day where we, as a community, came together to say ‘OK, what do we do now to move forward?’” said Joelle Martinez, a CLF leader.

“Our kids may have felt a little defeated yesterday, but we can come together to tell them that we are not done fighting, that it has just begun, and that we are not going to give up on them,” she said.

But, as was the case this year, Republicans are sure to mount a full-scale attack if the bill resurfaces in the future.

“My position is not about what is next. It’s about what is now,” said Sen. Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs. “Rewarding criminal activity by giving a benefit to the (offenders’) offspring is not in our Constitution and is wrong. Whether you call them illegal immigrants or illegal aliens, the common word is ‘illegal.’”

Jason@coloradostatesman.com