TRENTON A Latino leader who is an ally of Gov. Christie on Wednesday accused state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) of playing politics and jeopardizing a bill that would allow undocumented immigrant students to pay in-state college tuition.
By insisting that the bill include access to financial aid - which Christie says he will not support - Sweeney risks losing the chance to pass tuition equality legislation long awaited by the state's Latino community, said Martin Perez, president of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey.
"It warms Latino hearts to hear the Senate president champion the in-state tuition cause," Perez said in a statement. "But unless he delivers the bill's passage and enactment, Latinos will have no choice but to conclude the financial-aid component was an insincere effort meant to kill the bill."
The bill, which passed the Senate last month, seemed to hit an impasse last week, when Christie - who says he supports tuition equality - said he would not sign the measure. On Monday, he said he was opposed to it in part because it includes access to state aid.
Sweeney accused Christie of flip-flopping on the bill in the interest of a likely presidential bid, and said he would not remove the component.
Without access to financial aid, "you've relegated the people you're trying to put on equal footing as second-class citizens," Sweeney said Monday. He said Christie was "finding excuses to oppose" the bill.
A spokesman for Sweeney said Wednesday that the Senate president had no comment on Perez's remarks.
Perez said the alliance, while supportive of access to financial aid, did not demand that it be included in an in-state tuition bill, first introduced in the Legislature in 2003. Previous versions of the bill have not included state aid.
Perez also said that Christie had not backtracked, pointing to the governor's remarks in support of tuition equality at the alliance's annual gala, held before last month's gubernatorial election.
"He's been consistent," Perez said in an interview.
Perez has previously been embroiled in a feud between Christie and Sweeney. Christie appointed Perez to the Rutgers University board of governors last year, bypassing the Senate, where Democrats had blocked the nomination. Sweeney then sued to remove the New Brunswick lawyer, arguing that the governor had been required to appoint a Camden County resident.
In February, the alliance endorsed Christie for governor over Democratic State Sen. Barbara Buono. Christie won 51 percent of the Hispanic vote in the Nov. 5 election.
Giancarlo Tello, campaign manager for the New Jersey Tuition Equity for Dreamers Coalition, said Perez was "the one playing politics" with Christie.
"This is the bill we've been advocating for all year, with state aid," said Tello. "True equality means true access for all."
Tello, an undocumented immigrant who came to the United States as a child from Peru, said the bill affects not just Latinos. "I didn't appreciate Martin trying to speak for me," he said. In a statement, he called Perez's remarks "infuriating."
Perez said lawmakers could split the bill into two parts, passing in-state tuition and addressing financial aid later.
"The last thing we need is a Washington-style impasse that squanders the opportunity to make progress by enacting what has been on the table since 2003," he said.