In this Nov. 8, 2016, staff file photo, state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, laughs after an introduction by state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, at the Double Tree hotel in downtown Chattanooga.

NASHVILLE — State Sen. Todd Gardenhire says he hasn't decided whether to renew his years-long legislative effort to provide in-state college tuition rates to undocumented Tennessee students brought illegally to the U.S. as children.

"It depends on several things," the Chattanooga Republican said Tuesday, adding, "I haven't tested the waters yet with everybody to see what their feelings are on that."

The bill's latest version failed in a House panel last spring. It sought to put decisions over granting in-state tuition rates to the undocumented students in the hands of public colleges and universities, not the Tennessee General Assembly.

And earlier this month, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery dealt the bill another blow, saying in a legal opinion that state lawmakers can't delegate the decision to higher education officials under a 1996 federal law and subsequent court rulings in other states.

Slatery wrote that the law and court rulings collectively "require the state legislature to enact legislation expressly making unlawful aliens eligible for public benefits, including in-state tuition."

Earlier versions of the bill sponsored by Gardenhire and Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, made it clear the General Assembly was making the decision. But White has been unable to get that passed. His effort to push the bill handing the decision over to higher education was an attempt to appeal to fellow Republican critics after the original version failed.

Gardenhire said Slatery's opinion "changes things a little bit, makes us go back to square one which was just an out-and-out [approval] like we had before. It's always good to have the attorney general give an opinion before we go to a lot of trouble on something. That was a way we thought we could do it."

The senator, meanwhile, was able to pass in committee last spring the revised version handing the in-state tuition decision over to higher education officials. But he held back on taking it to the Senate floor, awaiting the outcome of White's effort in the House.

Gardenhire said his thoughts are to go back to the original bill simply making the students who are in the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program eligible for the same tuition rates as other Tennessee residents.


Gardenhire successfully passed that version in the Senate back in 2015. White's companion bill failed that same year by a single vote on the House floor, and he has since been unable to get it through committee.

After the original bill failed this year, White unsuccessfully pressed the second bill and it also failed in committee.

"Mark White and I need to sit down and talk about it," Gardenhire said.

The senator noted all the Republican candidates running for governor in 2018 have come out against the in-state tuition bill, which he said "surprised" him. "So we'll have to see what the temperature is before we sit down and try to take that on."

All five GOP gubernatorial hopefuls have said they are opposed. That includes House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, who abstained from voting on White's original 2015 bill. That resulted in the bill failing by a single vote on the chamber floor.

Efforts to reach White and officials with the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, a proponent of the legislation, were unsuccessful Tuesday.

But White told The Associated Press last week the more explicit wording of the original bill will be a hard sell in the House.

"In today's political climate, especially in a year where everyone is running for office again, it makes it very difficult to spell it out," White said.

Some 20 states as well as Washington, D.C., allowed undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates to attend public colleges and universities. In Tennessee, the students have to pay out-of-state tuition, which can be as much as triple the in-state charge.

Gardenhire, White and immigrant advocates argue the students grew up in the U.S. and for many Tennessee is the only home they've known.

The senator, whose district includes much of the city of Chattanooga and a number of immigrants, argues the students and their families already pay Tennessee's sales tax, the state's top source of revenue. Making it easier for them to obtain a two- or four-year college degree, he says, will put them on the path toward better jobs and generate more tax revenue and fewer societal burdens.

But a number of Republicans oppose the legislation, arguing it would make Tennessee a magnet for undocumented immigrants.

The legislation would apply only to students who are in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Then-President Barack Obama's administration created DACA in 2012 to allow some who entered the country illegally as minors or whose parents outstayed their visas to be eligible for a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and the ability to work legally.

President Donald Trump's administration has rescinded the program, with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions saying it will be phased out. The administration and congressional leaders are negotiating over legislation to replace DACA with a legal status before a March deadline.

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.