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Senate Leader: Tuition Vote Will Be Tough Battle

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COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP) — Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said Monday he is expecting a tough battle this year on legislation to allow illegal immigrants to receive in-state tuition to public colleges and universities under specific circumstances in Maryland.

Miller, D-Calvert, cited a recent lawsuit filed against Montgomery College for its long-standing policy of providing county tuition rates to all recent county public school graduates, regardless of immigration status, as providing an impetus for lawmakers to act.

“It’s going to be a major issue before the General Assembly this year, and it’s going to be a very tough battle, and I predict it will be a very close vote in committee and on the floor,” Miller said while speaking at the University of Maryland’s first annual Maryland Politics Summit.

Delegate Anthony O’Donnell, the Republican minority leader in the House of Delegates, said the bill sends the wrong message that the state is willing to support illegal immigration. He also said other states are tightening illegal immigration policy, instead of creating a climate to encourage illegal immigrants to stay.

“I’m a grandson of immigrants,” said O’Donnell, who also spoke on the panel. “I champion immigration, but we shouldn’t encourage law breaking in this country. We shouldn’t encourage it. We should discourage it, and as a state our policy is saying, ‘Come here. We have plenty of money. Come here and we’ll do what we need to make your life easier.’ And I just think that’s bad policy.”

Sen. Victor Ramirez, D-Prince George’s, is sponsoring legislation to allow illegal immigrants under specific circumstances to receive in-state tuition at public colleges and universities in the state.

Panelists talked about a variety of state issues during the event. In addition to Miller and O’Donnell, Sen. E.J. Pipkin, the Senate minority whip, and House Speaker Michael Busch also participated.

Budget issues were a dominant theme.

Pipkin, an Upper Shore Republican, pointed out that rural counties have received little money for road repairs in the past two years, while there are discussions about extremely expensive mass transit projects in urban areas.

“You really are dividing, or having two Marylands evolve here,” Pipkin said, referring to talk of huge expenditures in urban and suburban areas with little talk of supporting infrastructure in rural areas.

Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said Gov. Martin O’Malley’s budget cut only about $100 million out of $5.7 billion for K-12 education funding, and he increased tuition by only 3 percent at public colleges and universities. However, the speaker noted that investments in education have come at a steep cost to transportation funding and money for health care.

The panelists also talked about Maryland’s $19 billion in unfunded pension liabilities and $16 billion in retiree health liabilities. O’Malley is recommending some pension reforms that would increase contributions from state employees and increase state funding for the system from 64 percent to 80 percent by 2023.

Miller, who has been a proponent of shifting some pension costs to local governments, said he would like to have seen O’Malley begin to consider some sharing of pension costs for teachers this year. Maryland is one of the few states in the nation where the state picks up the entire teacher pension cost.

“He punted on pensions,” Miller said. “Next year we’re going to have to look at that issue very closely because in two more years our pension system that we pay for our state teachers is more than all we pay for higher education.”

Pipkin said the pension issue will have to be dealt with either this year or next. He said the expense is about $1.2 billion in a $13 billion state operating budget.

“To say that we’re not going to touch it really kind of has a stick-your-head-in-the-sand kind of a mode, although there are significant implications,” Pipkin said.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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