During this week’s sessions in a House Education Subcommittee and the Senate Education Committee, Governor Haslam’s education agenda “Drive to 55” was the reason given for needing to pass bills that make illegal immigrant students in Tennessee eligible for in-state college tuition.
“Drive to 55″ refers to Haslam’s higher education reform umbrella that includes the TN Promise, LEAP, TN Reconnect and TN Advise” programs which are each intended to “increase the number of Tennesseans with a postsecondary degree or credential to 55 percent by the year 2025.”
Tennessee Star previously reported that Rep. White and Sen. Todd Gardenhire were carrying two sets of bills (SB104/HB863 and SB635/HB660), that if passed, would make in-state college tuition rates available to illegal immigrant students.
On Tuesday, Rep. Mark White’s bill, HB660 which would authorize the new college and university governing boards to decide which students are eligible to pay in-state tuition rates was taken up by the House Education Administration & Planning Subcommittee. Almost immediately, Rep. Harry Brooks asked White whether he “intended this bill to create a mechanism for folks who are illegally in the country” to get in-state tuition?
White admitted “that is where this thought came from.” He also admitted that he has another bill (HB863), that addresses that issue specifically but that the HB660 bill under discussion, would relieve state legislators from having to vote whether to grant in-state tuition to illegal immigrant students and would instead, allow the new college and university boards to make the decision through rule-making. Any proposed rules would subsequently be reviewed by the legislature’s Government Operations Committee and the Attorney General to ensure that they are in line with state and federal law.
The federal Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, signed into law by President Clinton, prohibits state colleges and universities from providing in-state tuition rates to illegal aliens “on the basis of residence within the State”—unless the same in-state rates are offered to all citizens of the United States.
The TN Board of Regents’ General Counsel informed the subcommittee that if White’s bill passes, it would create an exception to current Tennessee law which classifies in-state tuition is a state benefit.
The lobbyist for the University of Tennessee explained to the Subcommittee that as a result of Haslam’s TN Promise program that provides two tuition-free years at community college, UT Martin experienced a decline in freshman enrollment and White’s bill would give the school’s board the latitude to find other ways to fill their seats.
No vote was taken on White’s bill which will be reconsidered on March 28th.
The following day, however, SB1014, the Gardenhire/White bill that is overtly designed to give illegal immigrant students access to in-state college tuition, passed the Senate Education Committee on a 7-2 vote. Sen. Joey Hensley and Brian Kelsey voted “no” while Sen. Gresham, Dickerson, Crowe, Tracy, Gardenhire, Tate and Haile voted “yes.”
Sen. Gardenhire explained to the committee that the goal of “Drive to 55” cannot be reached without enabling the “estimated 13,000 undocumented” students in Tennessee to have the benefit of in-state tuition rates. Students who self-identified as illegal immigrants were in attendance and were asked by Sen. Gardenhire to stand and be recognized; they received a round of applause.
Sen. Jim Tracy offered a minor amendment to the bill that would allow students within 100 miles of Tennessee’s border to also access in-state tuition rates as a way to help UT Martin fill their open seats because “we need more students in college…we are not at full capacity now…I’m just trying to reach more students.”
Rep. White has put his companion bill, HB863 on notice in the House subcommittee for next week and Sen. Gardenhire has put the companion bill SB635 to Whites HB660, on the calendar in the Senate for next week.
In 2015, when Gardenhire and White first tried to pass their in-state tuition bill, Haslam said it had “merit” and this year, greeted the “undocumented” students outside the state capitol.
Gubernatorial candidate Randy Boyd is a member of the Partnership for a New American Economy that promotes in-state tuition for illegal immigrant students.
Sen. Mark Green who may forgo his run for governor voted for Gardenhire’s in-state tuition bill in 2015.
Sen. Mark Norris and Mae Beavers who have both said they are considering running in the 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary, each voted “no” in 2015 on Gardenhire’s in-state tuition bill.
Speaker Harwell whose decision to run in the 2018 gubernatorial race has been the subject of conflicting reports, absented herself during the House floor vote on the 2015 in-state tuition bill for illegal immigrant students.