CO Senate Republicans test out arguments against undocumented-student tuition bill

DENVER– In a highly anticipated Senate debate here Friday, Republicans launched early-round attacks against a bill that aims to create a mid-level state-university tuition rate for undocumented students who have graduated from Colorado high schools. Although the bill easily weathered the GOP barbs in the Democrat-controlled chamber, passing on a 20-13 voice vote, the two-hour back-and-forth showcased the lines of argument opponents of the bill will seek to sharpen before it arrives a few weeks from now in the Republican-controlled House.

SB15, the ASSET bill sponsored by Democrats Angela Giron and Mike Johnston, is the latest version of a bill brought six times over the last few years. It establishes what the sponsors are calling a “standard rate” tuition several thousand dollars more per year than most in-state students pay but significantly lower than the high rates paid by out of state and foreign students to attend Colorado’s public colleges and universities.

Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, opened opposition arguments by saying the bill encouraged lawbreaking. She read out sections of an essay prepared by a think-tank making the case that the students would have to earn money as they attend college and therefore would have to fudge their paperwork to do so, creating fraudulent work visas or stealing identities.

“This bill encourages multiple job-related felonies,” she said. “Why do we encourage them? The message sent to these kids, who often come from countries where corruption is rampant, is that it’s OK to commit felonies in the United States.”

Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, said he was sympathetic with the plight of the students, many of whom were brought to Colorado as children and know no other home, but that he believed the bill would simply create false hopes. Federal law will prevent them from working in the country even after they have earned a college degree, he said.

“We need to talk about what’s legal. We should be talking to our federal government about the problems our insecure borders have created for Colorado.”

Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, agreed, saying the bill was a mere “band-aid”

“We’re trying to address the issue of people coming here illegally and trying to conduct their lives under the legal radar,” he said. “We can’t fix this with band-aid legislation.”

Lundberg and Broomfield Republican Shawn Mitchell took turns describing the bill as “dishonest” or designed to mislead. They looked skeptically upon nonpartisan Legislative Council assessments that maintain the bill will cost the General Assembly nothing while raising $4 million for Colorado higher education.

After asking the bill sponsors to walk him through the fiscal calculations, Lundberg dismissed their answers as effectively beside the point. He waved them off and said he “had suspicions.” With more students, there would be more costs and the new tuition rates being offered would not cover them.

“Make no mistake, the people of Colorado will pay the freight,” Lundberg said, his posture shifting from skeptical accountant to populist firebrand. “This is very creative bookkeeping!”

Mitchell suggested the bill was a typical product of do-gooder government officials. He said it was “motivated by compassion” but that it was “misleading and misdirected.”

“This bill is compassionate. It’s also politically correct and fiscally dishonest,” he said.

Like Lundberg, however, he didn’t cite specific figures to demonstrate the alleged dishonesty of the bill. He underlined instead the larger problem of the students being barred by federal law from working in the United States after graduation.

“This bill doesn’t help the students and it puts us on the wrong side of the law.”

It was social conservative Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, who eventually introduced hard-line anti-illegal immigration rhetoric into the debate. He described the murder in the spring of 2010 of Arizona border rancher Rob Krentz and then introduced an amendment that would grant all U.S. citizens the proposed standard tuition rate.

“Let’s make it available to all if we’re gonna allow illegal immigrants to come into our state and go to our schools,” he said. “The border murderers. The high school criminals. That’s the side of the equation we’re not talking about.”

Johnston, a former school principal who has led on education issues in the Senate since he arrived in 2009, attempted to address the critiques. He emphasized that the students would be paying more than in-state tuition rates and were ineligible for any tax-payer scholarships, grants or loans. They would each be paying something like $6000 to $8000 more for their degrees than would students who were legal citizens. Administrators at the vast majority of degree-granting institutions in the state supported the bill, he said, making the cost-benefit calculation that it was a moneymaker. He added that undocumented residents of Colorado pay taxes, roughly $200 million by some estimates, and that that contribution certainly should be considered in reference to any un-accounted-for costs the bill might be generating.

On the matter of encouraging illegality, Johnston was unconvinced.

“We are requiring all of these students to apply for citizenship to be eligible for the new tuition rate,” he said. “They understand that they will likely have to return to their countries and apply for visas. They know that. They say full-throated that they want to do it legally. Their only crime is their status. Nothing we do here will change that. They can either be studying biochemistry at the Colorado School of Mines or sitting in their parents’ basement in their boxers playing Nintendo. I would rather they go to school and prepare to contribute to this economy.”

Boulder Senator Rollie Heath pleaded with lawmakers to simply look at the question from an economic standpoint.

“We’re debating whether this is costing us money…. These students will earn a million dollars over the course of their lives with a four-year degree. Tell me, what is the economic rationale?”

Heath referred to the fact that states all around Colorado– Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, for example– provide in-state tuition and scholarship money to undocumented students and that they recruit many of the best undocumented students Colorado has paid to educate in its grammar schools and high schools.

“Yes this can be an emotional issue,” he said, “but just look at the economics. Why let Kansas take our best and brightest? Both sides of the aisle are saying this legislative session is all about economic development. I ask you to vote ‘yes’ on this bill.”

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