Metro State explains new rates to JBC

The Colorado Statesman

Metro State College of Denver President Dr. Stephen M. Jordan told members of the Joint Budget Committee Wednesday afternoon that he would take another look at the school’s controversial decision to offer discounted tuition rates to undocumented students in the wake of Attorney General John Suthers’ opinion that under federal law, only state legislatures can create such classifications of tuition rates.

But he promised no reversal in school policy, at least for now.

The school’s board voted 7-1 on June 7 to offer the so-called Colorado High School/GED Non-resident Tuition Rate, which is $7,157 per year for 15 credit hours each semester. Students have until June 29 to apply.

Jordan said that the rate does not amount to a subsidy and does not use taxpayer dollars to support the program. He pointed out that it was calculated by considering the actual cost of education and capital construction dollars. Undocumented students will not receive certain state stipends and capital construction contributions.

Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, chair of the Joint Budget Committee, called a hearing this week to determine how Metro State College formulated its decision after the Legislature rejected a similar proposal to offer undocumented students reduced tuition rates earlier this year.

Senate Bill 15, sponsored by Sens. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, and Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, died on April 25 in the House Finance Committee after it had cleared a major hurdle two days earlier by making it through the Republican-controlled House Education Committee. That came about largely due to the support of the committee’s chairman, Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs. House Republican leadership had assigned the bill not only to Education, but to Appropriations as well, which assisted in leading to the measure’s demise.

Similar to how SB 15 — the Colorado ASSET bill — was modeled, Metro’s proposed rate is still higher than the normal in-state rate, which is $4,304 per year. It is still significantly lower than the out-of-state rate, which is $15,985 per year.

Undocumented students attending Metro would be required to pay for:

• Replacement for resident student share of tuition — $4,304;

• Replacement for College Opportunity Fund stipend — $1,860;

• Replacement for fee-for-service charge — $342; and

• Capital construction contribution — $650.

A statewide estimate of students who may benefit from the new rate for undocumented students is 500 in year one, and 250 each following year, according to an analysis conducted by the school. The institution is assuming that 60 percent of the students are in the seven-county metro area, which equates to estimated growth for Metro State of 300 in the first year, and 150 each following year.

“Anytime we can create a program which contains all the cost plus a net additional piece and brings in more students and generates a net positive income… we are doing what we need to do to sustain operations of the institution,” said Jordan.

The institution’s opinion was formulated before President Barack Obama announced last Friday an executive order that halts the deportation of some undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. Obama’s order is intended to provide a path to higher education for those undocumented students.

Gerou, however, does not believe Metro should be considering the president’s decision. “We aren’t going to talk about what the president’s announcement was because what I was really more interested in was where you were at the time you made this decision,” she told Jordan during the sometimes acrimonious hearing on Wednesday. “I’m really more interested in what you did.”

The General Assembly can continue to consider this issue, Suthers wrote in his opinion, which he issued at the request of the Colorado Community College System. “In the meantime, however, state-supported institutions of higher education in Colorado cannot act unilaterally. Under federal law they must await a decision by the legislature. I am disappointed Metro State decided in this manner without consulting our office.”

Deputy Attorney General David Blake argued that the new rate amounts to a state-supported benefit, which needs approval from the Legislature.

“At the core of our opinion is simply this, that federal law requires an affirmative choice by the state legislature, by this body, to provide benefits to individuals who cannot prove their lawful presence in the United States,” Blake told lawmakers.

Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, a member of the JBC, bolstered the opinion, arguing, “You are not setting rates, you are creating new categories of rates outside of your statutory authority.”

Several lawmakers who are not on the JBC sat in on Wednesday’s hearing, including Sens. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, and Johnston, and House Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, Reps. Lois Court, D-Denver, Chris Holbert, R-Parker, and Angela Williams, D-Denver.

Johnston, who is an education law professor and a former school principal, raised issues with the AG’s opinion, especially over whether the new tuition rate can be considered a state-backed public benefit.

“You’re saying that if someone pays the actual cost for a public service then that would count as a benefit…” he started before being interrupted by Gerou for speaking too long and rushing through his thoughts. “If that’s the case, then anyone who rides an RTD bus and pays the regular fare, if they’re undocumented, that would count as a public benefit.”

Jordan agreed with Johnston, rejecting the AG’s opinion. But he said that Metro would take another look at its policy.

“I have great respect for the attorney general and the importance of the role that he plays, and as the attorney general said himself, reasonable people can come to different conclusions,” said Jordan. “I believe we did a very comprehensive assessment of what we believe the legal groundwork is. I’m not sure that I personally… agree with the opinion of the attorney general, but we clearly have to take that into consideration.”

Jordan added that, “We fully intend to examine that opinion to understand what (it) means in the landscape of the announcement the president made last Friday and to consult with folks, including the governor’s office, on their views about it.”

Dems accuse leadership of playing politics

Democrats expressed some confusion as to why Gerou even called a JBC hearing to discuss the issue, considering that the budget committee is not taking any legislative action on the issue now or in the foreseeable future. The JBC is one of the few legislative committees to meet year-round, but it is charged with acting primarily on budgetary matters usually concerning the Office of State Planning and Budgeting.

The JBC took no actions and held no hearings on reduced rates for undocumented students this year, having only a stakeholder meeting with higher education leaders to discuss general budgetary issues. Still, Gerou questioned why Jordan did not inform the committee over the course of the year that his institution was working on a unilateral plan.

Jordan explained that his board did not want to interfere with plans for legislation. “We were very clear that our policy preference was and continues to be, as it always has been, that we wanted to support the ASSET bill,” said Jordan. “We did not wish to do anything that would distract from support in this legislative body for that bill.”

Aguilar believes the meeting called by Gerou served only to fuel a political discussion, and said that Gerou went beyond her authority in calling the hearing.

“The Joint Budget Committee has certain duties that they’re allowed to fulfill when we’re not in session, and those duties are generated by request from the Governor’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting, and the Governor’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting did not ask for this hearing,” said Aguilar. “So, I wanted to know who called this meeting, why, and on what authority.

“I felt a little bit like it was bullying,” Aguilar continued of Gerou’s actions. “And then to say that you should ignore what the president said on Friday, it’s like, come on, history is evolving and I think what the president did on Friday makes what [Metro] did even more timely.”

Guzman took the argument one step further, suggesting that Suthers’ opinion was steeped in conservative politics. “If Mr. Suthers wasn’t a delegate to the Republican National Convention, it may never have even been brought up,” she said.

The AG’s office took offense to charges of political grandstanding, pointing out that the opinion was requested and that the tone of the opinion is based in legal background, not politics.

“The opinion of the attorney general seems to be turning into a political document, and I want to very much push back on that,” noted Blake. “This is not a political document, there’s nothing in it political, we’ve taken no policy position on the ASSET bill or the merits of this debate.”

Gerou herself defended the calling of the meeting, also pushing away from accusations of playing politics.

“Basically… the school made a decision without the legislative process behind it, and so that’s the real issue, and that decision could have a financial impact on the state,” insisted Gerou. “That’s the whole point of this. It’s not politics. There’s no emotionalism. I’m just trying to figure out how we pay our bills, and is this another bill we have to pay?”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com