Although the Maryland General Assembly recently granted college tuition discounts to illegal immigrants, the conservative governing bodies in Carroll and Frederick counties are encouraging residents to sign petitions challenging the law.
The county commissioners' move — on official letterhead and websites — comes as petition organizers face a key deadline. By Tuesday, they must present the state with 18,500 valid signatures to continue their drive to get a referendum on the law next year.
The commissioners say their effort is justified because the new law would drive up costs at local community colleges. But their statements have raised concerns among some ethics watchdogs and political groups, who say the officials are politicking with taxpayer resources.
"If they want to advertise their position, they should do so with own campaign accounts," said Susan Wichmann, director of Common Cause Maryland. "They wrote this release on government letterhead and on government time."
In the Carroll County news release, the five-member, all-Republican board "encourages citizens to say 'No' to legislation that would provide in-state tuition discounts for illegal immigrants." The release provides a link to the petition and ends: "Act Now!" and "You can make a difference."
Richard S. Rothschild, president of the board, said the news release "is merely an expression of the political views of the commission. I believe it is absolutely appropriate. As commissioners, we have to weigh in on state issues all the time."
Officials with the State Board of Elections said nothing in election law prohibits the issuing of such releases.
The Dream Act, which Gov. Martin O'Malley has signed into law, offers illegal immigrants in-state tuition for post-high school education — but with limitations, including the requirement that students enroll first in Maryland community colleges. Fiscal analysts have estimated that the law will cost $3.5 million by 2016, though critics say that number is too low.
"Tuition at these community colleges is artificially low and must be subsidized by taxpayers," said Rothschild. "Why should we subsidize families with no legal residency standing?"
Blaine Young, president of the Frederick County board, which is also all-Republican, said the county budget includes $13 million for the community college.
"We want to make tuition affordable for our citizens, not for illegal aliens," Young said. "This issue is all about money."
Proponents of the measure say that many children of illegal immigrants are already entitled to the tuition break. By virtue of their birth in this country, they are U.S. citizens.
"It is important that people read the legislation and understand it," said Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for O'Malley. "In most cases, these are students who have come through the public school system. They stayed in Maryland and have contributed to the economy. They want to succeed and are willing to work hard."
If petition organizers obtain the 18,500 signatures required by Tuesday, they face another hurdle. If the issue is to appear on the next statewide ballot in 2012, 55,736 valid signatures — the equivalent of 3 percent of voters in the last gubernatorial election — must be collected by June 30.
The tuition law is scheduled to take effect July 1. But if the petition drive is successful, the measure would be put on hold until the November 2012 election.
Del. Neil C. Parrott, a Washington County Republican, said petition organizers have collected 25,000 signatures already and are pushing for another 10,000 by Tuesday's deadline.
"We want to be absolutely certain we have more than enough valid signatures to continue moving forward," Parrott said. "We are even contacting signers where we see errors and asking them to resubmit."
Del. Pat McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican, said the petition has bipartisan support across the state.
"In the beginning, about 80 percent of the signers were Republican," McDonough said. "Now it is 50-50."
Carroll officials said in their release that the Dream Act "will increase the cost of education for families who obey the law." Officials added that the legislation rewards illegal behavior and "provides an incentive to attract more illegal immigration."
"This legislation is troubling parents who are legal citizens," said Rothschild, who has signed the petition.
Frederick's release, which used much the same language, added that the measure "will attract more illegal immigration."
Petitioners plan to be out in force this weekend through the county, said Commissioner Billy Shreve. "Our county is adamantly opposed, and we are offering residents numerous places where they can sign this petition," he said.
Undocumented immigrants in Maryland contribute to their communities and only qualify for tuition breaks if they can prove they are filing taxes, said Kimberley Propeack, director of political action for CASA de Maryland, an advocacy group. According to national research, the state's undocumented immigrants paid almost $270 million in state taxes in 2010, she said.
"Perhaps Carroll County is not facing the same fiscal pressures as the rest of the state, but we think that most local government should be supporting legislation that brings dollars into our local and state coffers," Propeack said. "Immigrant-bashing may be easier than supporting sound fiscal and educational policy, but we believe that America can do better."
Neil Ridgely, a member of the Carroll Democratic Central Committee, said that while commissioners are entitled to their political beliefs, he finds it "extremely distressing that the commissioners are using county offices for political purposes.
"This law is well-intended legislation that has been passed," he said. "Why are they using semantics to stir up people?"
The Carroll board unanimously voted to issue the news release during an open session, after discussing the issue for about 15 minutes, said Commissioner Haven L. Shoemaker. Frederick officials said they followed Carroll's lead, issuing their release Thursday.
"We are not trying to twist anyone's arm, but we are urging citizens to sign the petition for referendum," Shoemaker said.