Four years ago when two tearful, undocumented high school students testified in favor of a bill to give undocumented immigrants in-state tuition, supporters of the legislation had to hide the girls later because some opponents wanted to deport them.

But on Thursday, only one person showed up to testify against Senate Bill 33, a virtually identical bill that passed the Senate Education Committee on a 6-3 vote - even picking up one Republican vote from Sen. Owen Hill, a freshman from Colorado Springs.

Absent were opponents like the one in a prior year who asked sergeants-at-arms to clear a hearing room of all illegal immigrants.

"The tone has changed from one of hostility to a hiring fair," said state Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, who along with Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, sponsored the bill. "We no longer see these people as threats but view them as assets."

Several Republican business people testified in favor of the bill, but GOP lawmakers openly supporting the legislation are still hard to find.

After published reports that Hill, a member of the committee, said he would support the bill, a firestorm started on his Facebook page the last several days.

Former state Sen. Dave Schultheis, R-Colorado Springs, a key supporter of Hill's in a GOP primary for the Senate seat, ripped him and said he "would not have endorsed" Hill had he known his position on the issue.


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"We've always been a nation of immigrants," Hill said after the vote. "I know I'm not going to be the only Republican who votes for this."

Under Senate Bill 33, students who graduate from high school and have attended a Colorado school for at least three years would be eligible for the in-state tuition rate regardless of immigration status.

Compromise versions of the bill the last two years excluded the illegal immigrant students from getting something called the College Opportunity Fund scholarship, which is a subsidy given to all Colorado students who get the in-state rate.

This year, Democrats want to give the College Opportunity Fund to the students, but say they hope to pick up some Republican votes.

Legislative analysts estimate there are approximately 1,500 high school graduates each year in Colorado without legal immigration status, and of those, about 500 will attend college the first year the law takes effect. An additional 250 will take advantage of the new law each year after that until 2017, analysts predicted.

Based on those numbers, the new students would generate an additional $2 million in tuition for colleges and universities in the first year and $3 million the following year, money which also would be spent to educate those students. But because the 2013 version of the bill includes the College Opportunity Fund for the immigrant students, the state would spend $930,000 to subsidize the students the first year and $1.4 million the following year, the analysis said.

The bill now must head to the Senate Appropriations Committee before it can go the full Senate, where it is expected to pass easily and possibly pick up more Republican support.