By Barbara Pash
After hours of lengthy debate and wrangling over amendments, the Senate gave tentative approval Wednesday night to a bill that would grant young illegal immigrants who have graduated from state high schools in-state tuition for community colleges and state universities.
The estimated cost of the tuition is about $800,000 in fiscal 2014, rising to $3.5 million in 2016.
Contending that “we set the bar high” for eligibility for the tuition break, Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince Geroge’s County Democrat who served as floor leader, said that 10 other states have adopted similar laws. The University System of Maryland and Association of State Community Colleges had endorsed the bill.
The committee added two amendments to the bill. One requires an undocumented immigrant to attend a Maryland high school for two years and graduate or receive a high school equivalency, and graduate from a community college in the same jurisdiction as the high school.
In a floor amendment, the length of time was increased to three years.
That student would receive in-county tuition there before applying to a Maryland public university. If accepted, tuition would be then be at the in-state rate. For a student to receive this benefit, a parent or legal guardian is required to have paid Maryland income taxes.
If passed, the bill would take effect in September 2011 and apply to students who graduated from high school since 2007.
The Senate approved the committee report by a vote of 28 to 18, despite objections from several senators — both Democrats and Republicans — that they did not have enough time to study the amendments and fiscal note.
A motion by Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat, to refer the bill to the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee because of the almost $800,000 cost to the state estimated in FY 2014 in the bill’s fiscal note, was also defeated by a vote of 13 to 30.
Pinsky fielded several questions about how many students would be eligible for the tuition break.
“We don’t know how many students will avail themselves of this,” he said, but pointed to Montgomery College, in Montgomery County, where 366 students are assumed to be undocumented immigrants.
Several Montgomery County residents are suing the college because of its policy.
It was estimated that receiving discounted tuition at a community college and university would save a student an average of $26,000. The tuition break also applies to non-credit courses and certificate programs at community colleges.
Sen. David Brinkley, a Frederick County Republican, said “The issue is who pays for it. The fact is, it’s going to cost us money and a lot of it.”
Pinsky responded that if education wasn’t made affordable, these students would not get one and that it behooved the state to have an educated workforce.
Several senators raised the issue of fairness. Jacobs pointed to Harford Community College, where there is a waiting list to get into some of the required courses for the health care field. “They’re taking up spots from people born in his county,” she said.
Brochin said the bill “rewards the wrong behavior,” referring to in-state students who come to him every semester as an adjunct professor at Towson University to say they cannot continue their education because of lack of money.
“We have to have priorities,” he said. “This is the most flawed public policy in all my years in the Senate.”