As previously discussed, the Democratic-led State Legislature was hoping to make a major push during the lame duck session of the State Legislature to pass a Dream Act for the Garden State. With the stress and pressure of the state elections over and Democrats having secured the majority in the State Legislature, it was more likely that something could be passed and delivered to Governor Chris Christie. Also, with the state elections in the rearview, Christie would not need to worry about electoral ramifications if he approved a bill that allowed undocumented students to apply for financial aid and pay in-state tuition rates. Granted, any losses he would have had among Republican base voters he would have made up with more traditional Democratic voters.
After successful committee votes in both legislative bodies, the state Senate's full body approved a bill that would be sent to the Assembly for a full vote a couple weeks ago.
The New Jersey Dream Act (S2479) would be brought up for a vote yet there was still concern that the bill would ultimately be vetoed by Christie. Allowing students to pay an in-state rate was not a major deal breaker for Christie. However, earlier in the year, the concept of financial aid programs like Tuition Aid Grants were not talked about as much and Christie was more likely to veto a bill if it featured this element.
Christie depended on Hispanic voters during his reelection campaign to build a bigger lead and help craft a large win in November. Now with the victory complete, those same supporters were concerned that he would take back his word on helping undocumented students in the state.
During debates, especially down the stretch; Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-37), the lead sponsor for this legislation in the Assembly, has been very open of being flexible on what the final language might be and has been willing to negotiate with Christie to get something passed.
If (Christie) has a lot of heartburn with the financial aid, let him take that piece out. We keep the in-state tuition in and go from there, if he’s not willing to do the whole thing. And the (state) Senate, I think, should go along with that.
Just as Johnson hinted at, a change would take place at the last minute. Democrats in both the state Senate and Assembly were prepared to accept the removal of the state aid element in hope of getting the in-state rates to pass into law for undocumented students who have been in the state for three years at a New Jersey high school.
Johnson would add,
The governor has the leverage and the governor has the power and this is a town of compromise.
With the change, the Assembly still needed to approve the original bill before both bodies would likely vote on a revised bill.
That is exactly what happened as there was mutual agreement in both legislative bodies after a compromise was made official with Governor Christie in a major breakthrough. The Assembly approved the original bill by a 46-32 vote along party lines similarly to how the state Senate vote went.
The vote and deal led state Senator Teresa Ruiz, a sponsor for the bill in the state Senate, to voice;
I’m overwhelmed with joy.
In a procedural process, Christie first had to conditionally veto the original bill (S2479) and would eliminate the provision involving Tuition Aid Grants (TAG). Democrats would then need to concur with the conditional veto to allow Christie to issue his signature.
The state Senate would vote again on the revised bill and approve it by a 27 to 7 margin with six state Senators not voting. While the Assembly would too vote again and they would approve the revised bill by a 50 to 26 margin with 1 abstention.
As Senate President Stephen Sweeney would outline,
We have come to an agreement on a conditional veto. To me, the most important part is that the governor will sign today, making this legislation effective immediately. This isn't a giveaway, by any means. This is paying for school. The only piece of this bill that didn't survive is the TAG grant. I'm disappointed with that, but I still view this as a victory for young people that are Americans in everything but on paper. We will not stop the quest to make this completely equal, which means the TAG grants. We don't view that in any way at all as being a magnet state - we view it as being a fair state.
While the bill was certainly a move in the right direction for the supporters of the Dream Act, it left some a little sour at the fact that Christie watered down the bill in the end as part of his compromise with Democrats.
For Giancarlo Tello, a member of the New Jersey Dream Act coalition and campaign manager for NJ United Students,
True equality for our community is access to in-state tuition and state aid. That's what the standard is. DREAMers in New Jersey and student leaders are committed to continuing the fight for the full New Jersey DREAM Act.
Tello would add,
For our community, we will begrudgingly accept it. But we are going to remember this. That Christie has reneged" on promises to the Latino immigrant community. We are going to remember our friends who stood by us...and we will remember those who thought that we only deserve crumbs, such as Gov. Christie, and we’re not going to forget that. And we are committed to coming back next year.
Despite some opposition from both sides, a little more than a week ago; Christie signed into law the bill that now grants thousands of students in the state who are undocumented to have the same opportunity to go to public universities and colleges at the in-state rate.
The bill ends this chapter of an ongoing debate in the state. The fact that the final bill was modified from an earlier version likely leaves the debate still open-ended as many still want undocumented students to be able to apply for those TAG grants. Also, Christie did not end this chapter of the debate quietly as he took a jab at Democrats including Sweeney for criticizing him and saying he would back out of signing this law. While he did ultimately sign the revised bill, it was certainly anything but smooth and Christie might have been a bit unjustified in his remarks.
At the end of the day, it's still a step in the forward in the Garden State. New Jersey joins 18 other states allowing in-state tuition rates for undocumented students. Only a few including California and Texas allow those same students to apply for financial aid and grants.