NASHVILLE - Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey says he has reservations about a bill that grants in-state college tuition rates to students who came to the U.S. illegally but attended Tennessee schools and graduated from high school.
"I'll have a problem with that," Ramsey said of the legislation, sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga.
"Illegal is the key word ... and they're not supposed to be here to begin with," the Blountville Republican said last week.
He said he wants to look more closely at the proposal.
Gardenhire's bill is scheduled to be heard Wednesday in the Senate Education Committee. Last week, Floyd delayed his bill in a House subcommittee, later saying he was a vote short.
Gardenhire said he hasn't had an opportunity to "present my case" to Ramsey and other leaders.
"I've been focusing on the people on the committee and trying to educate them and overcome their objections and hang-ups, if you want to call it that," he said.
The Senate committee recently passed a related Gardenhire bill granting in-state tuition rates to U.S.-born children of undocumented workers living in Tennessee. Children born here are American citizens, but they don't qualify for in-state tuition because their parents aren't here legally.
In getting that bill through committee, Gardenhire told colleagues they should back the bill from a "pure greed function." He led members through statistics showing college-educated children of illegal immigrants get better jobs, make much more money and thus pay far more in taxes than they receive in government benefits.
"These people aren't draining us," Gardenhire said. "It's the other people who are draining us and costing us more money, and we need to be a little bit selfish and a little bit greedy about this. And we need ... to solve this problem. This is a problem that's hurting us economically."
Out-of-state tuition at Tennessee's public colleges and universities is nearly triple the cost of in-state tuition and usually proves too high a financial barrier, students and immigrant advocates say.
Both bills require that students graduate from a Tennessee high school with at least a B average, the same requirement for a Tennessee Lottery-funded scholarship. However, the students would not be eligible for a lottery scholarship in either bill.
Ramsey said he supports in-state tuition for U.S.-born children of undocumented workers in Tennessee.
"The second one, I've got to look at that more closely. ... The general philosophy, that's where I'd be [opposing it]. I don't know how you do that."
Last week, dozens of Tennessee teenagers whose parents brought them to the U.S. illegally came to Legislative Plaza to visit key committee members' offices.
Among them was 16-year-old Julisa Santillan, a Red Bank High School student who arrived in the U.S. as a 2-year-old.
"I want to be a teacher, and I want to afford college and pay the same rate," said Santillan.
Over the past six years, the GOP-led Legislature has passed any number of measures targeting undocumented workers, although the pace has slowed considerably in the last two years.
Following the 2012 presidential election, Ramsey told a Northeast Tennessee television station that while he still wanted strong national borders and opposed "amnesty," Hispanics "are here, they're hard-working people, they are Christian Roman Catholics, they think like we as Republicans do, they are conservative."
Eben Cathey, with the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, said the bill for foreign-born children of undocumented workers "is about Tennessee kids and making sure everybody has a fair shot at going to college."
"For years the Legislature has demonstrated some hostility toward immigrants and Latinos. This is their opportunity to change the tone and do something positive," Cathey said.
Nineteen states grant in-state tuition in such cases, according to the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam said the second bill has "some merit," in his view.
Gardenhire said he's working on education committee members right now.
"If it fails in the committee, then I won't need to educate anybody this year beyond the eight members [on the panel]," he said. "Once it gets out of committee, I've got just a couple of weeks or so to educate and sit down with the speaker and make my presentation."
The Chattanooga lawmaker said Ramsey has "told me that, 'Well, right now, the way I look at it, I have a problem with it.' But he said we'll talk if it gets out of committee. He's been open to discussions but now is not the time to have that discussion with him."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.