Opinions differ on whether to work with Republicans on future ASSET bill...

Or target them for defeat
The Colorado Statesman

Latino voters in Colorado may target Republicans in politically vulnerable legislative districts following a controversial vote last month by the GOP caucus that killed legislation aimed at providing reduced tuition rates to undocumented students.

Despite Senate Bill 15 making it further along in the legislature than in any of the previous six years in which proponents attempted similar legislation, supporters are livid that the Republican caucus on April 25 once again prevented the measure from making its way to both legislative chambers for full debate. Proponents point out there is no time left for this year’s legislature to bring the proposal forward for “fair” debate in both chambers, and so they are weighing their political options in hopes of forcing Republicans out of vulnerable districts in an effort to tilt the balance of power the Democrats’ way. The strategy would be to mold a legislature that is friendly towards the so-called Colorado “Advancing Students for a Stronger Economy Tomorrow” (ASSET) legislation.

Democrats currently control the Senate, but Republicans hold a one-seat razor-thin majority in the House, which means targeting even one district vulnerable to Republicans could yield important results for ASSET.

“This has been the sixth year, and after a while I think that you have to stop and look at what the strategy is going to be,” Butch Montoya, the former manager of safety and deputy mayor of Denver and a proponent of reduced tuition rates for undocumented students, told The Colorado Statesman earlier this month. “Individually as citizens, everyone can get involved in supporting the candidate of their choice.”

SB 15 would have created a so-called “standard-rate” for undocumented students who have attended a public or private high school in Colorado for three or more years, and have been admitted to a college or university in Colorado within one year of graduating from high school. Undocumented students would have needed to submit an affidavit to the college or university stating that they have applied, or will apply for lawful residential status in the United States.

The bill’s sponsors, including Sens. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, and Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, and Reps. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, and Angela Williams, D-Denver, attempted to diffuse controversy this year by tweaking the proposal. They had hoped that two major differences to similar legislation in the past would have convinced Republicans to back this year’s effort. For one thing, in-state tuition would not have been applied to undocumented students, as proposals had attempted in the past. Instead, the separate “standard-rate” category would have been created, and students would have actually paid about $2,000 per year more than the in-state rate. University systems would have also been allowed to opt out of the reduced tuition rate program, rather than create a sweeping mandate, which had been of concern to Republicans.

The efforts of proponents weren’t a complete loss, however, as sponsors were able to sway Republican Rep. Tom Massey of Poncha Springs over to their side. As chairman of the House Education Committee, Massey’s vote was critical in sending SB 15 on to the next junction. The bill, however, was still assigned to both Finance and Appropriations, and when it reached its next committee, House Finance on April 25, it was killed on a party-line vote of 7-6.

Montoya is still evaluating which districts to target following the committee vote. He is currently looking to individuals to help him organize campaigns against vulnerable Republicans, but he can’t seek the help of nonprofit organizations like Together Colorado, formerly Metro Organizations for People, as it is illegal for 501(c)(3) organizations to participate in electioneering.

Targeting Rep. Robert Ramirez

At the top of Montoya’s list is House District 29, a seat held by Latino Republican Rep. Robert Ramirez of Westminster. Ramirez voted against ASSET on April 23 when it was up in his House Education Committee, and as a Latino, he has already received backlash from the Hispanic community for voting the way he did.

Ramirez took the HD 29 seat from former Rep. Debbie Benefield, D-Arvada, in 2010 by only 197 votes. Following reapportionment, the district is still relatively evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. The seat is particularly important to Republicans and Democrats alike, as it was the seat that in 2010 gave Republicans the one-seat majority in the House. Ramirez is facing off against Democratic challenger Tracy Kraft-Tharp, a lawyer who is offering him a fierce challenge. Given the competition, Montoya is eyeing the seat.

“Instead of trying to maybe convince [Ramirez] next year, maybe what we’ll do is work a little harder to get a Democrat back into that seat,” said Montoya.

For his part, Ramirez acknowledges that his vote on ASSET could come back to haunt him come election time. He first began to feel that concern last year after he voted against a similar ASSET proposal. Following last year, Ramirez spent the summer working with proponents on a compromise, acknowledging the importance of the Hispanic vote. He even traveled to Washington, D.C. to speak with congressional delegates about enacting federal reform.

Ramirez’s compromise to SB 15 on the state level called for an opt-out provision for universities, as well as requiring that students have been in a Colorado school for at least seven years before being considered eligible for the reduced tuition. In his compromise, Ramirez had also called for requiring that the students have actually filed paperwork to become a U.S. citizen in order to be eligible for the tuition break. He says it is not enough that they simply sign an affidavit stating their intention to file for citizenship.

Ramirez believes his compromise would have helped at least 60 percent of the undocumented students who the bill was crafted to impact. He had even suggested a late bill to address concerns, but by the time ASSET was killed on April 25, Ramirez said it was too late for additional legislation on the topic. He blames Senate Democratic leadership for having allowed the bill to languish on the Senate calendar for nearly two months before it received a third-reading vote to send the bill to the House.

“They were playing games,” Ramirez said of the Senate Democrats’ actions. “It breaks my heart, but we’re limited to 120 days.”

While Ramirez acknowledges that his votes on ASSET could impact him come Election Day, he has no qualms about voting the way he did. “Everything we do could impact me at the polls, but I’m there to represent the people of my district, and overwhelmingly they were fine with what I wanted to do, but not with the ASSET bill as it was.”

Still, as a Latino, the issue frustrates Ramirez. “It’s absolutely tough for me, but it’s not about what makes me feel good, it’s not about my heart, it’s about the laws in this country and it’s about everyone, not just certain groups…” he said. “If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it, but we’ve got to do it within our laws and within our constitution.”

Continuing to wooRepublicans on board

SB 15 co-sponsor Duran believes that there is Republican support for the bill, but that sponsors need to strike the right balance. She is hesitant to rush into targeting any vulnerable Republican candidates in the name of ASSET, pointing out that proponents had worked diligently this year to develop a strategy that included Republicans.

Sponsors earned the support of a broad coalition outside the Capitol, including such prominent Republicans as Alex Cranberg, chairman of Aspect Holdings, Pat Hamill, chief executive of Oakwood Homes, Bob Martinez, former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, Dick Monfort, owner of the Colorado Rockies, and Dick Robinson, co-chief executive of Robinson Dairy, to name a few.

Duran says sponsors would like to build upon that Republican support next year, suggesting, “We saw a real bipartisan effort this year with a lot of Republicans showing their support, so I would say that we would like to continue that effort next year.”

She hopes to convince other Republican lawmakers to support ASSET next year, but with Massey being term-limited, sponsors will have their work cut out for them.

Olivia Mendoza, executive director of the Colorado Latino Forum, agrees with Duran that the issue is a bipartisan one that doesn’t have to cross party lines, though she does acknowledge that finding Democratic supporters has been an easier task. Mendoza said that an energized and engaged Latino voting bloc is important to the cause, so she and other supporters are working to educate Latino voters on the public policy issues and elections that are facing them.

“Educating on... how our voice matters is very important,” she said. “If people turned out and voted for elected officials that share their values, then you can start to hold those elected officials accountable.”

Mendoza, however, admits that she is “bitter” following the vote last month, and says she is going to dig in over the summer to work to find candidates who support reduced tuition rates for undocumented students.

“I’m incredibly bitter. I can’t verbalize for you the sadness and the incredible, almost pain I felt that day,” Mendoza said about last month’s vote. “I think I’m as jaded as you can become working around the political system.

“You still sometimes have hope that the right decision will be made when it comes to public policy, and personally my story was one where public policy transformed the entire trajectory of my life, and I believe so much in policy, and for someone who’s been around, it hurts — it hurts a lot,” she continued. “These are real people; these are real communities.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com