The state Senate Friday gave 20-13 preliminary approval to Senate Bill 12-015, the measure that would create a special category of tuition for undocumented college students.

Sens. Mike Johnston, D-Denver (left) and Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud.
Sen. Mike Johnston (left) listens intently as Sen. Kevin Lundberg criticizes Senate Bill 12-015.

The vote came after nearly two hours of debate that largely recalled 2011’s Senate discussion of a similar bill.

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.

Prime sponsor Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, opened the debate with an emotional plea for the bill, but much of the talking Friday morning was done by Republicans who opposed the bill. Eight Republicans rose – some repeatedly – to argue against the bill, as opposed to five Democrats, including Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver and the lawmaker who is managing the bill through the legislature.

Supporters argue that such students aren’t in the U.S. by choice, they should be allowed to continue pursue education after succeeding in high school, that producing more college graduates will help Colorado’s economy and that taxpayers won’t be subsidizing such students. Proponents also believe the bill would increase revenue for colleges.

Republican critics maintain that the bill would reward illegal behavior and encourage more immigration, offers false hope to students who won’t legally be able to take jobs after graduation, that taxpayers will indirectly subsidize such students, that the bill is unfair to out-of-state and legal foreign students, and that reform of federal immigration laws needs to come first.

Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, said the bill “sends a message of ‘come to Colorado – we don’t enforce federal laws or even our own laws.’”

Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud and one of the Senate’s most conservative members, said, “Make no mistake about it, the people of Colorado are going to pay the freight.” Lundberg took the podium repeatedly during the debate.

Johnston, courteous and patient at the microphone as always, rose repeatedly to rebut GOP arguments. But, as was the case last year, no minds were changed.

The debate was measured and polite, but there was one whiff of tension after Sen. Scott Renfroe talked about illegal behavior and told a story about an Arizona rancher murdered on the border. “That’s the other side of the equation we don’t talk about.”

Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, said, “It’s always very, very painful to hear our young undocumented students … be called felons.” While every member is entitled to sincere beliefs, Guzman said, “Some see these young people as felons; some see them as heroes.”

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 proposes a so-called “standard” tuition rate for undocumented students, about halfway between current resident and non-resident rates.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, and students
Sen. Mike Johnston (center) celebrates with students after initial Senate approval of SB 12-015.

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.

To be eligible, students would have to be Colorado high school graduates and file applications for legal residency. (See legislative staff summary of the bill’s provisions.)

A Republican amendment was accepted to require colleges to report the numbers of such students they enroll. All other GOP amendments – including one to charge all students the same rate of tuition – were defeated.

Johnston provided one brief moment of levity after Democratic former Sen. Chris Romer of Denver entered the chamber to observe the debate.

“Can we just tag-team Sen. Romer in” at the microphone, Johnston asked, to chuckles. Romer was a prime sponsor of a 2009 version of the bill. That measure died on the Senate floor when some Democrats joined Republicans to vote no after an emotionally charged debate.

What’s next

Last year’s version of the bill died in the House Education Committee. Panel chair Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncho Springs, said recently 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.

The bill is expected to be parked on the Senate calendar for some time before it’s brought up for a final vote. That’s because supporters want to build additional external support, such as from college trustees, that can be used to bring lobbying pressure on House Republican leaders. (Johnston was off to a Western State College trustees meeting Friday afternoon to pitch for a board endorsement.)

A key goal for supporters is to have the bill assigned to a House committee where it has a reasonable chance of being advanced to the floor.