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‘Dreamers’ tuition proposal likely dead

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A bid to legally create a special community college and university tuition for “dreamers” and others who don’t qualify for the in-state rate has run headlong into a potentially fatal snag.

House Speaker Rusty Bowers told Capitol Media Services on Friday he will not allow the proposal by Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, to be heard in his chamber. The Mesa Republican said there are too many logistical, political – and he believes legal – problems with the plan to even allow it to be debated.

The decision comes despite the fact that the bill cleared the Republican-controlled Senate last month on an 18-12 margin.

But the fact remains that only four of the Senate 17 Republicans supported the measure. And Bowers said that there are enough GOP lawmakers in the House who do not like the idea to convince him to pull the plug.

The move has left Carter hoping to angle a way to get the issue to the full House and gain some converts among her own party. Her plan?

“Just keep presenting the bill as drafted and giving them the information that they need and answering any questions that they have,” she said.

Officially, SB 1217 has nothing to do with those in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program set up by the Obama administration in 2012 to allow those who had been brought to this country illegally as children to remain and work without fear of deportation.

That led to a decision by the Maricopa Community Colleges to decide that those in the program qualified for in-state tuition if they met other residency requirements. When a judge rejected a court challenge to that, the Arizona Board of Regents and some other community colleges followed suit.

All that ended last year after the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that Proposition 300, a 2006 voter-approved law, specifically says those who are “without lawful immigration status” cannot be charged the same tuition at state colleges and universities available to residents. That same law also denies them any type of financial assistance that comes from state funds.

The regents have come back with their own plan for a tuition of 150 percent of what is charged to other residents.

SB 1217 would specifically require all colleges to come up with a tuition rate for those who graduated from Arizona high schools but do not meet residency requirements. The rate would have to be high enough to cover the actual costs of education, meaning not subsidized by taxpayers, but still lower than what the schools now charge to residents of other states.

Carter said that could benefit not just DACA recipients but also those who left Arizona after high school but choose to return here for college.

Bowers said his decision to deny a hearing in the House for the Senate-passed measure has nothing to do with any desire to keep dreamers from getting an affordable college degree.

“I sympathize and, even in a way, can empathize with the folks affected,” he said, saying he wants to be able “to offer some method of recognizing their long-term presence.”

“But I just can’t trounce on Prop 300,” Bowers said. He said the only legal way to provide the kind of financial relief that Carter seeks is to revisit the legislation, something that would mean taking it back to voters.

“It is the law,” Bowers said.

But that’s not the only issue. There’s also the question of politics, with the speaker saying that many of his members represent Republican districts that are not interested in providing any sort of tuition break to students who, despite their DACA status, are technically in this country contrary to federal immigration law.

“I have to stick up for my members and I have to make up good policy,” Bowers said. “And it has proven overly daunting thus far.”

Then there’s what Bowers describes as the “mechanical” problem behind what Carter proposes.

He said that directing the regents and each community college governing board to come up with its own tuition is likely to lead to wildly different proposals about what each considers to be a non-subsidized rate.

So, for example, Bowers said one school might use pure operating costs while another believes that the amortized costs of the buildings also needs to be a factor. He said if there is to be a solution there needs to be a single – and clear – definition of what constitutes a non-subsidized tuition.

Carter swatted that objection down as irrelevant.

“Our statute doesn’t micromanage tuition rate-setting now,” she said. “So why would we start?”

As to the legal question, Carter said foes of the bill are ignoring what is in Proposition 300 and how what she is proposing is different.

“Voters talked about in-state tuition,” she said. “This is not in-state tuition” but an entirely new category.

Anyway, Carter said, the focus of the ballot measure was on the use of state tax dollars. And she pointed out that the two largest community college systems get no state aid at all.

Carter’s efforts have an important ally in the business community.

During hearings in the Senate, it got the support of Glenn Hamer, president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who said the state should “do everything we possibly can to keep good people in the state of Arizona.”

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