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Senate Panel Sets Sights on In-State Tuition Law

Efforts to ditch a law that allows some undocumented students to pay in-state college tuition appear to be on a fast track in the Senate, but key House leaders aren't on board with the idea.

An immigration reform rally at the Texas Capitol on Feb. 22, 2013.

* Editor's note: The subcommittee postponed its hearing for a week and this story has been updated to reflect that.

The push to repeal a 2001 law that allows some undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities is returning to the legislative spotlight, but on an unusual stage.

A week from Monday, the border security subcommittee of the Senate’s Veteran Affairs and Military Installations Committee is scheduled to hear Senate Bill 1819, by state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, which would do away with the in-state tuition provision. The hearing had been scheduled for next week, but was postponed until April 6, said state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's decision to send the bill to the border security panel — instead of the education or state affairs committees — strikes some lawmakers as a signal that the deck is being stacked in its favor.

State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, said treating tuition rates as a question of border security was also an affront to undocumented students pursuing college degrees. 

“Referring in-state tuition repeal to border security is implying these students are threats to the country, when in fact they are trying to contribute to the country,” he said. “It is a disservice for this bill to be heard in border security.”

The hearing on Campbell's bill was scheduled a week after a similar bill, SB 1429 by state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, was referred to the Senate's State Affairs Committee. But as of Friday, Hall's bill hadn't been scheduled for a hearing. (Patrick's office declined to shed light on why Campbell's bill was referred to the subcommittee and immediately considered.)

But while the measure is likely to easily pass the Senate, it may meet more resistance in the House. 

Current law — approved with near unanimous legislative consent 14 years ago — allows undocumented students who have lived in Texas for at least three years and pledge to apply for legal status as soon as they can under federal law to pay in-state tuition rates.

Campbell’s bill would end that, and allow universities to establish a policy to “verify to the satisfaction of the institution” that a student is a legal resident or citizen.

Eliminating in-state tuition was a hallmark of Patrick’s campaign. The Houston Republican’s campaign literature proudly boasted of his attempt to eliminate the provision in 2011. Other Republicans have argued that the policy acts as a “magnet” that lures undocumented youths to Texas.

Supporters of the tuition rule argue that it makes sense economically, since the state invests thousands of dollars to educate the children in public schools. Shutting off their opportunities to excel in college, the supporters say, hinders their potential contributions to the state’s economy.

As of 2013, about 2 percent of the state's college students — 24,770 — were taking advantage of the policy, according to data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board analyzed by the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an Austin-based liberal think tank. The CPPP also estimates that in 2010, undocumented immigrants paid $1.6 billion in taxes, which helped support higher education institutions in Texas.

Those statistics, in part, could underlie a showdown on the issue between the House and Senate.

When the session began in January, state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, said he supports the current policy despite the political firestorm it’s caused. On Wednesday, Zerwas, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, said debating the policy is healthy, but he still stands behind it. 

If SB 1819 passes the Senate, Zerwas said it likely won’t be referred to his committee but instead the House Committee on State Affairs. The chairman of that committee, state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, said his support for the current policy is double-tiered.

“Number one, Texas made a commitment to these students, and as Texans we should honor our word,” he said. “Additionally, it would seem to me that having educated young people is much more productive for the economy of the state.” 

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