Colorado ASSET may see new life in new legislature

The Colorado Statesman

Those who support offering reduced tuition rates to undocumented students are gearing up for the 2013 legislative session, optimistic that with Democrats controlling both chambers, so-called Colorado ASSET legislation will finally pass this year.

On six separate occasions the legislature has denied Colorado Advancing Students for a Stronger Economy Tomorrow (ASSET). The proposal has taken many different forms over the years, including offering in-state tuition rates to undocumented students, as well as simply creating a new reduced tuition rate category. The latter was the version introduced in the last legislative session.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, and Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, say they will once again introduce a version of ASSET next year, but they are not exactly sure when they will have a draft. They do not expect to introduce the measure in the first round of bills when the session kicks off on Jan. 9. A draft likely won’t be available until late December.

With Democrats having regained control of the legislature following the election, ASSET stands its best chance next year. But both Johnston and Duran say they are working on language with the hope of securing Republican support.

GOP opposition doomed the bill in past years, despite a small, but growing coalition of Republicans who support it. The bill gained the support this year of outgoing Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, who chaired the House Education Committee, where it passed. But House Republican leadership sent the bill to Finance, and it died on a party-line vote.

Still, ASSET supporters noted progress, including support from 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.

Johnston believes the November election was symbolic of a desire by Coloradans to back certain issues, such as ASSET. He points specifically to Rep. Robert Ramirez, R-Westminster, who was unseated by Arvada Democrat Tracy Kraft-Tharp. Ramirez had opposed offering reduced tuition to undocumented students.

“I think Tuesday night was a sign that there was an increase in public support for the idea that all kids ought to have a chance at college,” Johnston said on the Thursday following the Nov. 6 election.

He believes the tide has turned following the Nov. 6 election, suggesting, “Some of the folks who may have felt constrained by their party now have seen there’s a real mandate from their voters and others to support it.”

Duran agreed, adding that the rising issue of Latinos voting could impact policies. The Hispanic vote was instrumental in propelling President Barack Obama to re-election, and it will likely continue to play a greater role in years to come.

“It’s just exciting to see the Latino community, which has for a long time been characterized as sort of the sleeping giant, to see that that is no longer the case. We’ve seen that this year, and in previous years, but it can make a world of difference when it comes to who is elected to office and who is not,” Duran said.

Lynea Hansen, spokeswoman for the ASSET coalition, says the campaign is looking forward to additional conversations with Republicans next year as the issue is once again debated.

“I think that [Republicans] are realizing that the dialogue does have to change, and I think we’re hoping that it will change quicker than later,” said Hansen. “There are people inside the Republican Party that do support ASSET, and this election gave them the ability to say that their constituents also support it now.”

Republican support remains vague

Ryan Call, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, said in April that he was disappointed that House Republicans killed the measure that would have made college more affordable for undocumented students. But he has also talked about not pulling the strings in the legislature. When asked by The Colorado Statesman in June about expressing regrets that Republicans blocked the bill, he responded: “I did. We all have our own personal opinions about particular legislation…”

Call, however, was a bit gun shy when asked this week whether he would encourage Republican lawmakers to support the bill next year, particularly given the outcome of the election.

“That’s a great question, which I’m not going to answer,” he quipped. “The reality is the conversations that I have with our Republican lawmakers are between me and those lawmakers, and it is not the place of the state Republican Party to dictate — certainly not publicly — to our elected officials how they vote.”

Staunch Republican critics of the bill say the issue comes down to Colorado’s compliance with federal law. They have maintained that even if undocumented students are given a shot at college, that afterwards they would still be ineligible to legally work in this country.

Similar criticism was raised earlier this year when Metropolitan State University of Denver unilaterally approved discounted tuition rates for undocumented students. Former Congressman Tom Tancredo, a Republican, has threatened to sue the university over its policy, but he has yet to move forward with the lawsuit.

Rep. Kathleen Conti, R-Littleton, opposed ASSET last session and led the charge in the House Finance Committee against the measure. She declined to comment on what it would take this year to change her mind, saying she wanted to wait until the bill is drafted.

“The devil is always in the details,” she said. “I don’t want to inflame the situation, or come across in any way as supporting it before I read the bill.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com