Senate panel adopts tuition restriction

A Missouri Senate committee adopted a state budget provision Tuesday to prevent public colleges and universities from offering in-state tuition rates to students living in the country illegally.

The action essentially guarantees the prohibition will take effect when the state’s next fiscal year begins July 1. The Senate Appropriations Committee adopted the provision as it worked to finalize its budget proposal. The House included the language in its spending plan in response to a St. Louis Community College’s decision to offer cheaper tuition rates for those students.

Senators softened the House version and opted to target only institutions that “knowingly” offer local tuition rates. Senators said the House’s outright ban put a burden on a university in vetting student applications.

“There is a policing factor that they really can’t do,” said the panel’s chairman Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia.

The change didn’t alleviate the concern of Democrats, who argue the state shouldn’t stand in the way of people seeking an education.

“The more Missouri residents that can pursue higher education and the more that can do so affordably make us by-and-large better off,” said Sen. Scott Sifton, D-St. Louis.

John Fougere, a spokesman for the University of Missouri System, said universities are currently bound by a 2009 state law that prohibits them from offering financial aid, grants or scholarships to students living in the country illegally.

That same law also requires universities to annually certify to state officials that they have not knowingly offered one of those benefits to unlawful residents. It asks them to use student loan applications, drivers’ licenses, birth certificates or federal documents to confirm an applicant is living legally living in the country.

If the full Republican-led Senate adopts the prohibition, the slight change in wording would be up for discussion between budget negotiators as lawmakers come up with an identical spending plan. But the broader policy on denying in-state tuition for people living in the country illegally wouldn’t be up for debate because both chambers have agreed on the principle.

Other items stemming from actions made by the Senate budget-writing panel on Tuesday will be on the table during those negotiations.

The committee voted to fully fund the Bright Flight scholarship program for top high school students who attend colleges in Missouri. The scholarships are awarded based on ACT or SAT scores.

Under the Senate plan, those students who score in the top 3 percent would receive $3,000 per year, while those who score in the top 4 percent and 5 percent would get $1,000. There is only enough funding in the current program and in the House proposal to award the top 3 percent of students with $2,500 annually.

But Senate budget writers didn’t go along with a House recommendation to add a forgivable loan component to the Bright Flight program. Schaefer said it was unclear if legislation to authorize that component would pass in time to include in the funding in next year’s budget.

In another difference with the House, the Senate panel included $6 million for the state to refurbish an old hospital site in the state capital. Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, said St. Mary’s Hospital is allowing Missouri to take over the site for college programs and office space, but wants the state to foot the bill for remodeling.

The Senate committee plans to vote on the entire roughly $26 billion operating budget Wednesday. It would then head to the Senate floor for approval.

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