NASHVILLE - A bill granting in-state college tuition to U.S.-born Tennessee high school graduates whose parents are living in the country illegally is on its way to Gov. Bill Haslam.
House members voted 63-27 for the bill, which previously passed the Senate.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, said current policies at the University of Tennessee and Tennessee Board of Regents systems don't allow U.S.-born children of parents living here illegally to attend public colleges at in-state rates.
"I think that a higher education does our state good ... All we're doing is taking a financial barrier out," said White, who called it "an issue for young people who graduate from our Tennessee high schools."
The systems' peg qualifications for in-state tuition to where a student's parents live. And since the parents in this case are undocumented and aren't officially in Tennessee, the children don't get in-state tuition.
Rep. Timothy Hill, R-Bountville, questioned why state lawmakers needed to pass a law instead of letting the higher education systems' boards act.
White said officials "feel more comfortable that we as a body ... legislate on this."
Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, sponsored the Senate version.
Gardenhire's argument for the bill is that the students are U.S. citizens but can't afford to pay out-of-state tuition rates that are sometimes triple those paid by Tennesseans. When the immigrant children graduate, Gardenhire has argued, they are far more likely to earn more and pay far more in taxes than they consume in social services.
Haslam has called the bill "interesting" but has not said he will definitely sign it.
Meanwhile, another bill sponsored by Gardenhire and Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, that would have granted in-state tuition rates to children whose parents brought them illegally to the United States as long as they spent five years in Tennessee is dead for the session.
In other action Monday:
• On a voice vote, senators voted 21-9 Monday night to reduce from five years to four the lifetime cap Tennessee families can receive welfare benefits. The Senate bill's sponsor, Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, said most people don't hit the five-year limit.
However later Wednesday night, the House budget subcommittee moved to delay the bill until 2015, effectively killing the legislation this year.
Kelsey said his bill provided for some exceptions, including situations in which a beneficiary is "dual-diagnosed" with mental and substance abuse problems. People in that situation can still get benefits for up to five years. The same applies to those who have been victims of abuse.
That drew criticism from Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, who called the exemptions "crazy." He said someone might "beat their wife and get benefits one more year."
Kelsey said Campfield's argument is "not true." The bill provides for a documented history of abuse. The extension is intended for the abuse victim and not the abuser, Kelsey said, going on to call Campfield's arguments "simply absurd."
• Senators approved a Campfield bill calling for the phrase "In God We Trust" to be displayed prominently at the state Capitol.
The bill passed on a 21-0 vote. It calls for displaying the phrase above the Capitol's main entrances as well as behind the House and Senate speakers' podiums.
The bill leaves it up to the state Capitol Commission to make the decision.
"It'll look really good. It'll say in God we trust," said an enthusiastic Campfield, who called it a national "motto."
But the state's longest serving lawmaker, Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, a decades-long champion of states' rights, questioned why Campfield want to use the federal motto when Tennessee's is "Agriculture and Commerce." That's what's on the state seal. It was adopted as Tennessee's official motto in 1987.
Meanwhile, the House version directs the Capitol Commission to study whether the national motto should be painted in the Motlow Tunnel, which connects the state Capitol and Legislative Plaza.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.