Maryland's highest court will soon decide whether voters will get a chance to overturn a break on college tuition costs for illegal immigrants, following a hearing Tuesday on the 2011 law.

The Court of Appeals is expected to rule within weeks on whether the Dream Act will appear on the ballot in November. The question before the seven-judge panel is whether the act is a spending bill, which under state law is not subject to voter review.

If the court decides that the law is exempted from a referendum, some illegal immigrants would qualify to pay in-state tuition at Maryland public colleges and universities. CASA de Maryland, an advocacy organization for low-income Latinos, appealed the case to the Court of Appeals after the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court ruled in favor of allowing the referendum.

Del. Neil C. Parrott, a Washington County Republican, said the case has broad implications.

"What's at stake is the ability for Marylanders to take any bill to referendum," Parrott said. "What we have is a bill that was illegal to begin with. It goes against federal law to give in-state college tuition benefits to illegal aliens.

"Then you have people who are in this country illegally basically suing to short circuit the [right of] citizens of Maryland to be able to take a bill to referendum and vote on it this coming November."

Parrott led MDPetitions.com in gathering nearly 109,000 signatures to force the Dream Act on the ballot.

Ballot questions must be certified by Aug. 20, making the matter time-sensitive.

Kimberley Propeack, political action and communications director for CASA de Maryland, said she is confident the tuition breaks will ultimately be available.

"Whether we win in the courts or we win in November, we're going to win on this issue," Propeack said. "Most Marylanders consider this a fundamental fairness issue. These are Maryland kids. Their families pay Maryland state taxes, and they should be allowed to pay Maryland in-state tuition."

To be eligible for the in-state rates, illegal immigrants must have graduated from a secondary school in Maryland after attending one for at least three years. They must also prove either they or their parent filed state income taxes.

The illegal immigrants could include those who are seeking permanent resident status, individuals escaping torture or oppression in their homelands, people entitled to special immigration benefits because they are victims of domestic violence, CASA de Maryland's attorneys argued in briefings filed with the court.

Joseph E. Sandler, a lawyer for CASA, was asked by the Court of Appeals judges to explain why the Dream Act is different from other bills that direct policy and involve future monetary decisions.

"Is this unique?" Judge Mary Ellen Barbera asked.

Sandler pointed to a legislative analysis characterizing the bill as one that mandates spending. The document projects that the Dream Act will increase state spending by $778,400 in 2014, based on an estimated 366 full-time students taking the discounted rate. Spending is expected to increase by $1.65 million in 2015 and $3.5 million in 2016.

"Tuition is about money," Sandler told the judges.

Matthew J. Fader, an assistant attorney general, faced off against Sandler in court. He defended the State Board of Elections' decision to allow the referendum to appear on the November ballot.

Fader argued that the law governs policy, not spending.

"It does not assign, set aside, reserve, dedicate, allocate or release any state funds for fiscal year 2013 or any other year, nor does it contain any provision to raise revenue for any purpose," according to a legal brief the attorney general presented to the court.

Paul J. Orfanedes, a lawyer representing MDPetitions.com, told the judges CASA's argument is weak and lacks evidence that any individuals are harmed.

"To bring action you have to have more than a disagreement," he said.

ywenger@baltsun.com

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