After a debate that included references to "jedi mind tricks" and "a galaxy far, far away," the Colorado Senate on Friday gave initial approval to a bill allowing undocumented immigrants to attend public colleges at the in-state tuition rate.
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.
The Senate gave the bill first-round approval on a voice vote, and it now needs a recorded vote before it can go to the House.
Compromise versions of the bill the last two years excluded the undocumented immigrant students from getting something called the College Opportunity Fund scholarship, which is funding sent to all public colleges for each student who gets the in-state rate. But with Democrats back in charge of both chambers of the legislature, the compromise version - which they'd referred to previously as "unsubsidized state tuition" - is out and the subsidy is back in.
An amendment from Democrats to the bill declared that the bill would require no additional appropiation for the College Opportunity Fund. But Republicans called the amendment a dishonest attempt to conceal the costs to taxpayers of the bill.
Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, the chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, argued it was wrong to think of the College Opportunity Fund as a per-pupil subsidy. Steadman said the subsidy was created as an "elaborate fiction" by lawmakers years earlier so that funding for higher education did not exceed revenue limits under the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights.
He said the legislature every year decides ahead of time how much money each institution will get under the College Opportunity Fund, and adding more students at colleges doesn't change that formula.
"Each institution is going to get its same percentage regardless of what students enroll where," Steadman said.
But Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, offered his own amendment to label to the Democrats' amendment as a "jedi mind trick."
"This (Democratic) amendment says there are no illegal immigrants here; just move along," Harvey said.
The amendment failed, but the Star Wars references continued.
"It's not those people in a galaxy far, far away who would benefit," said Sen. Jesse Ulibarri, D-Commerce City. "It's those people in our neighborhoods who would benefit."
Even with the fight over potential costs, three Senate Republicans have indicated support for the bill, a historic first, and the bill also could pick up GOP votes in the House. Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, has indicated he will sign the bill.
"I'm of the opinion that this is a very conservative idea," said Sen. Larry Crowder, D-Alamosa, one of the three Senate Republicans in support of the bill.
Crowder said that even though he believed the bill would cost money, it was worth it. He said that taxpayers have invested for years in students who don't have legal status and would be essentially squandering that investment.
Traditional foes of the bill also chimed in.
"It's not some sort of a xenophobic, irrational fear," Sen. Kevin Lundbeg, R-Berthoud, said of his opposition. "It is a basic respect for the way the law works and that we maintain that rule of law in the future."
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.