TRENTON - A bill qualifying undocumented immigrants for in-state college tuition rates cleared an Assembly committee Thursday, moving one step toward reaching the desk of Gov. Christie - who has said he would not sign it.
The apparent impasse did not stop Democratic lawmakers and supporters of the bill from celebrating its release from the Budget Committee, which dropped an earlier in-state tuition proposal and advanced the same measure - giving undocumented immigrants access to state financial aid - that passed the Senate last month.
The full Assembly must pass the bill before it goes to Christie. Spokesmen for the governor did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
All four Republicans on the committee voted against the bill. Assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon (R., Monmouth) accused Democrats of insisting on a bill with access to financial aid for political reasons. Christie has said he supports tuition equality but not awarding state aid to undocumented immigrants, among other objections to the bill.
"Rather than grasp the governor's open hand, the Legislature would seem to be more interested in slapping it," O'Scanlon said.
He said the bill previously advanced by the committee, limited to in-state tuition, "seemed to be embraceable by all sides."
Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D., Bergen) noted that Republicans on the committee also had voted against the earlier in-state tuition proposal.
Proponents of the legislation charged Christie with flip-flopping when the governor, who voiced support for tuition equality during his gubernatorial campaign, announced that he would not sign the Senate bill. Christie denies backtracking.
The bill would allow students who attend three years of high school in New Jersey and graduate there or receive the equivalent of a high school diploma to pay in-state tuition rates at state universities and colleges. They also would be eligible to apply for state financial aid.
Christie, in addition to objecting to the state-aid component, has voiced concern over a provision that would allow boarding-school students to pay in-state tuition and the lack of a prohibition applying to future undocumented immigrants.
Supporters have dismissed the concerns as excuses for Christie - who is widely expected to run for president - to sidestep a politically sensitive bill. They argue that state aid is necessary to ensure that undocumented immigrants, brought to the United States by their parents and taught in state schools, have access to higher education.
"It's about fairness," said Giancarlo Tello, campaign manager for the New Jersey Tuition Equity for Dreamers Coalition.
During the hearing, Republicans questioned how expanding access to the state aid would affect students who are citizens.
"If we add in this additional pool of people, it's going to cost more, or less money will be given," O'Scanlon said.
Udi Ofer, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said that in Texas, which has a similar law in place, 1 percent of state financial aid goes to undocumented students. "We're really talking about small numbers here," he said.
Assemblyman Jay Webber (R., Monmouth) said the bill would be "discriminating against fellow American citizens," allowing undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition but not citizens from other states.
By that logic, any in-state tuition rate is unfair, said Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D., Burlington).
"The way you're framing it . . . we're already discriminating against Americans," Singleton said.
Webber disagreed, saying his point was to question what significance citizenship has "when you broaden the pool."
Members of the public who testified against the bill also expressed concerns. "Where are the rights of the citizen anymore?" asked Barbara Eames of Whippany.
Pat DeFilippis of Toms River, a "fed-up American taxpayer," said: "We're going to be giving gifts to people who don't belong here. Start worrying about us taxpayers first."
When another man testified that poor African Americans who could not get jobs were "insulted" by efforts to help undocumented immigrants, Singleton said: "To pin it on the backs of just one group, frankly, I think, is a simplistic argument."
Fifteen states allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition, and three more have university systems with similar policies, according to New Jersey Policy Perspective, a left-leaning think tank.
Three states - Texas, California, and New Mexico - let undocumented immigrants receive state aid.
Also Thursday, the Budget Committee released a bill that would ask voters to authorize a $200 million bond for the state to buy and preserve open space. The state has appropriated the last of a $400 million bond approved by voters in 2009 for open-space purchases.
A Senate committee advanced a different bill that would dedicate the lesser of $200 million or 2.4 percent of the state's annual sales-tax revenue for 30 years to buy open space.
Environmental groups are split on the proposals. Some herald the sales-tax approach as a long-term solution, while others say diverting the revenue will spur cuts elsewhere.
Assembly Speaker-elect Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson), the Budget Committee chairman, said the state could not afford to divert sales-tax revenue. "Other than what we're offering here today, the other option would be doing nothing," he said.