The Senate Education Committee Thursday voted 4-3 to send Senate Bill 12-015 to the floor, reprising a role the panel has played before.

The bill would create a new level of tuition at state colleges and universities for undocumented students, an amount higher than resident tuition but below rates for out-of-state students. It’s the sixth time in the last several years such a bill has been considered by the legislature.

The emotional, nearly three-hour hearing was the top event of a busy statehouse day for education issues, including contribution limits for school board candidates, teacher and public employee pensions and education effectiveness regulations.

Same kind of testimony, same result

The result wasn’t in doubt – four Democrats voted yes and three Republicans voted no – but SB 12-015 got a full hearing in Senate Education Thursday afternoon.

Cosponsor Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, led off the session, saying, “We believe that we can’t and must not permit another generation of young immigrants to struggle” in order to go to college.

Proponents of the idea want to make it easier for undocumented students who’ve been successful in high school to be able to go to college at prices they can afford. Supporters of the idea also argue that it would help the state’s economy and increase tuition revenue for state colleges.

Sponsors and witness at Senate Education hearing
From left: Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver; student Laura Serrano; Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo
Previous versions of what’s called the ASSET bill have sought to make undocumented students eligible for lower in-state tuition rates. SB 12-015, in an effort to gain Republican support, proposes a so-called “standard” tuition rate for undocumented students, about halfway between current resident and non-resident rates.

For instance, annual standard tuition at Metro State would be $6,694, compared to $4,834 for residents and $15,690 for out-of-state students. Undocumented students would not be eligible for College Opportunity Fund stipends (basically a tuition discount for state residents) or for state financial aid. The bill also would allow individual colleges to decide whether to offer the standard tuition or not. (See this legislative staff analysis for more details on the bill and how many students might be affected.)

The hearing, played out before a standing-room-only crowd, featured a familiar cast of students and business leaders supporting the bill and a small group of anti-immigration activists opposing it.

One of the more compelling witnesses in favor was Laura Serrano, an Aurora Central High School senior and native of El Salvador who came to Colorado at age 7.

“My only dream is to go to college,” she said, explaining that while she’s in the U.S. legally through a work permit, she’s not a resident for purposes of in-state tuition. Serrano said she’s been accepted at Fort Hays State University in Kansas – at resident rates – but wants to stay in Colorado to help support her family.

The fact that most neighboring states offer attractive tuition rates to undocumented students came up repeatedly during the hearing. “They’re intentionally poaching our students because we won’t let them go to college” at affordable rates, said Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver and a bill cosponsor. (Johnston did much of the talking during the hearing, while Giron appeared close to tears during much of the session. Several witnesses and committee member Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, also got weepy at times.)

The most articulate opposition witness was Pauline Olvera, a board member of the Colorado Hispanic Republicans. Her sometimes-acid comments included remarks like the bill “is an insult to immigrants who came here legally” and the suggestion that undocumented students should go back to their parents’ home countries to get higher education.

Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial
Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial
Republican objections to the bill, voiced by senators Keith King of Colorado Springs, Nancy Spence of Centennial and Scott Renfroe of Greeley, included the illegality of giving such a benefit to undocumented people, the argument that such students won’t be able to work legally after they graduate and that even the carefully crafted structure of SB 12-015 means undocumented student still would be subsidized by taxpayers.

Johnston, who’s usually passionate but polite, got exercised by some of the criticisms, including Olvera’s contention that undocumented students just need to be tenacious in pursuing higher education despite high costs. He cited the story of a former student of his who returned to Mexico, despite threats on his life by drug cartels, to await determination of his immigration status. “I don’t think you can tell me with a straight face that child lacks tenacity.”

On the issue of whether children should suffer for the immigration law violations of the parents, Johnston cited the somewhat jarring example of murderer and death row inmate Sir Mario Owens, saying Owens’ children wouldn’t be barred from lower tuition just because of their father’s crime.

Things got a little testy late in the hearing, as King questioned the fiscal note produced by legislative analyst Josh Abram and Renfroe objected hotly to use of the word “stupid” by Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder. Heath, who said the bill makes sense just from an economic development point of view, had said, “How stupid can we be” not to see the economic benefits. Renfroe demanded an apology, but Heath didn’t reply.

Last year’s version of the bill died in the House Education Committee. Panel chair Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncho Springs, said earlier this week that he’d support SB 12-015. That could get the measure out of his committee, but House Republican leaders could decide to assign it to a different committee.

Giron and Johnston told reporters Thursday they’re hopeful about the bill’s chances in the House.

Campaign bill meets expected fate

Republicans and Democrats had a lively – but cordial – half-hour debate about what’s wrong with campaign finance laws before the House State Affairs Committee killed House Bill 12-1067 on a party-line vote Thursday, with Republicans in the majority.

The measure would have imposed contribution limits on school board and RTD director races and was prompted by last year’s mega-bucks Denver Public Schools board races. (A similar, and also unsuccessful, 2011 bill was prompted by high-spending DPS races in 2009.)

Sponsoring Reps. Beth McCann and Lois Court, both Denver Democrats, made a spirited defense of the bill, but committee Republicans weren’t convinced.

“This bill does absolutely nothing, zero” to control campaign spending, said Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs. “The dollars will go underground” through 527 and other independent expenditure committees, he predicted.

“Money is like water; it’s always going to flow,” said Rep. Larry Liston, R-Colorado Springs.

“Does that just mean we do nothing?” asked McCann. “We want the average parent to be able to run for school board.”

The bill died on a party-line vote, with five Republicans opposing and four Democrats supporting.

Only a light workout for PERA

How much money did the Public Employees’ Retirement Association make in 2011?

Public Employees' Retirement Association headquarters in Denver.
Pension system chief Meredith Williams told the joint House and Senate finance committees Thursday that the final calculations won’t be done for a couple of months, but that “right now we’re saying low single digits.”

PERA’s assets took a big dive in 2008 but had 17 percent and 14 percent returns in 2009 and 2010.

The pension system, which covers all Colorado teachers and thousands of higher education employees, has lots of critics among Republican lawmakers, but the questioning was fairly easy Thursday.

Critics don’t like the system’s projection of 8 percent annual returns over 30 years, think its board is too weighted toward employees and retirees and argue more civil servants should be in a defined contribution plan instead of the traditional defined benefit plan.

Also on Thursday persistent PERA critic Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Lakewood, introduced House Bill 12-1179, which would change the makeup of PERA’s board. A similar Kerr effort died last year.

See the slides that PERA brass presented to the committees.

Senate Ed gets tied up in knots

After its vote on SB 12-015, the members of Senate Education still had to take up their responsibilities under the SMART Government Act, a new law that requires legislative committees to make recommendations about the budgets of state departments they oversee.

At issue was what committee members thought about the Department of Education’s request for $25.9 million to pay for development of new statewide tests. Members didn’t seem to support that, and after a confused and confusing discussion and set of motions, the committee decided it would rather $1 million be spent to pay school districts to give high school students the Accuplacer test (a pet project of King’s) and that another $2 million be spent to look into development of new social studies and science tests. The leftover money should be plowed back into aid to school districts, members believe.

In addition to its Alice-in-Wonderland quality, the discussion was purely academic. The Joint Budget Committee, which writes the annual state budget proposal, is under no obligation to accept the recommendations of other committees. And the administration of Gov. John Hickenlooper doesn’t want to spend the $25.9 million at all, saying the money isn’t actually available.

Renfroe voted no on all the various motions, citing his objections to the SMART law. (SMART discussions have been consuming lots of time over the last two weeks in every legislative committee.)

Educator effectiveness bill advances

The full House Thursday gave preliminary approval to House Bill 12-1001, the measure to ratify the State Board of Education’s regulations for implementation of Senate Bill 10-191, the principal and teacher evaluation law. There’s no controversy or concern about the bill, which is expected to sail through the legislature and be signed into law by a Feb. 15 deadline.

More money for scholarships?

Gov. John Hickelooper’s office announced Thursday the governor is endorsing a plan to “restructure” Pinnacol Assurance, the giant state-chartered worker compensation insurance company.

The question of selling off Pinnacol is politically tricky and economically complicated, but it’s of interest to education because Hickenlooper has talked about using part of any sale proceeds to beef up the state financial aid fund for college students.

Read the governor’s news release here and the report of the Pinnacol task force here.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information.