In-state tuition opponents have signatures for referendum

Outside the MVA office in Frederick, Nancy Baginsky, 64, of Taneytown, left, signs a petition as volunteer Carol Geisbert, 65, of Lewiston witnesses the signing
Outside the MVA office in Frederick, Nancy Baginsky, 64, of Taneytown, left, signs a petition as volunteer Carol Geisbert, 65, of Lewiston witnesses the signing (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore Sun)

Opponents of in-state tuition breaks for illegal immigrants have submitted more than enough valid signatures to suspend the controversial new law until voters have their say next year, state elections officials said Thursday.

In the first day of reporting since petition organizers turned in the final batch of signatures last month, the Maryland Board of Elections announced that it had validated more than 63,000 names — far more than the roughly 55,736 needed to trigger a referendum in 2012.

"The matter will appear on the ballot," said state elections administrator Linda H. Lamone.

If the signatures survive legal challenges, it will be the first time in nearly two decades that Marylanders have successfully petitioned a law to referendum — and an unexpected success for the state's minority Republicans, who were trounced in the gubernatorial election last fall and had little leverage to block bills this year in the Democratic General Assembly.

When GOP freshman Del. Neil Parrott announced the petition drive after the legislative session ended in April, supporters faced daunting obstacles: little cash, no outside support and Maryland's strict rules for petitions, which have caused some of the state's most sophisticated political operatives to fall short.

But a sour economy and smart use of the Internet allowed organizers to reach their goals quickly. In the end, the repeal advocates submitted more than 132,000 signatures — more than double the number needed.

With local elections officials still reviewing and reporting petitions, the total number of valid signatures is expected to climb.

The success has buoyed the spirits of state Republican leaders, who see Parrott's petition website — MDPetitions.com — as a way to bolster their position on other laws they oppose.

"It is a game-changer," said Republican Party Chairman Alex Mooney. "The Democrats think that they can do what they want."

Gov. Martin O'Malley signed the tuition breaks into law in May after they were approved by the legislature.

To qualify for the discount, an illegal immigrant would have to attend high school in Maryland for three years and show that his or her family had filed tax returns to the state. The student then could attend a community college at the in-state rate paid by other Maryland residents. After completing 60 credits, he or she could transfer to a four-year college, again at the residential discount.

The legislation would save eligible students $4,000 to $6,000 per year at community college, according to a legislative analysis. At a four-year institution, the savings would increase: In-state tuition at the University of Maryland, College Park this year is $8,655; nonresidents pay $25,795.

Legislative analysts estimate that the measure would cost the state about $800,000 in the first year, rising to $3.5 million annually by 2016. Opponents say the cost could be far higher.

Petition organizers cast the tuition breaks as a frivolous expense in tough economic times. Opposition crossed party lines, with one in three signatures in the initial batch of petitions submitted in May coming from Democrats.

Organizers expected to reach the goal after delivering 13 boxes of petitions last week to the secretary of state's office. Still, they sounded stunned Thursday at their success.

When informed that the elections board had validated enough signatures, Parrott said: "Oh, did they? Oh, that is good."

He went to the election board's website to check himself.

"This is a great number," he said. "And it's just a start."

Supporters of the tuition breaks turned to Twitter to express their dismay. Del. Heather Mizeur, a Montgomery County Democrat, wrote that she has a "heavy heart."

The Maryland Industrial Areas Foundation, which represents 85 congregations and schools in the state, issued a statement under the heading: "Love will prevail over hate."

The group has joined in a public relations campaign that kicked off last week to shift the focus to civility and blunt the economic criticism by arguing that the law should be viewed as an investment in the state's youth.

"We trust that once Marylanders do the math, they will understand the fiscal and moral import to ensure the MD DREAM Law prevails," foundation leaders wrote in a statement.

Other supporters of the breaks held out optimism that the referendum could be shut down.

David Rocah, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, pointed to a petition drive that appeared to have been successful in 2001, only to be exposed as fraudulent during a court challenge. "The fact that the board has validated the signatures does not mean that the signatures are in fact valid," Rocah said.

The last time a law was put to the voters was in 1992, when a group successfully petitioned a law affirming a woman's right to an abortion to referendum. Voters upheld the law.

This time the ACLU has raised questions about whether the petitions generated through Parrott's website pass legal muster.

Casa de Maryland, which also supported the law, is preparing a court challenge. The group has requested copies of all 132,147 petitions and expects that many will be disqualified.

"I obviously was not expecting them to [reach the goal] today," said Kim Propeack, a spokeswoman for the group.

Should the court efforts fail, Propeack said, she's "looking forward" to discussing the issue during a statewide campaign. She expects CASA to be joined by "national partners" backing their efforts.

On the other side, national groups are already watching. A spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington organization that opposes extending benefits to illegal immigrants, said Thursday that they would support the repeal "in any way that we can."

Spokesman Ira Mehlman cited California and Arizona as states where laws that supported illegal immigrants were beaten back at the ballot box, and predicted Maryland would be no different.

"It is simply unjustified to be granting new benefits to illegal aliens at a time when the state is cutting service to everyone else," he said.

The local boards of elections have until July 20 to finish counting signatures. The list must be certified by July 22.

Sen. Victor Ramirez, the Prince George's County Democrat who sponsored the bill, said he expects "the people of Maryland to get on board" when a campaign in support of the law is launched.

"If you are paying income taxes in the state of Maryland," he asked, "why shouldn't you pay the in-state rate?"