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No In-State Tuition for Undocumented Immigrants in 2015

“Tuition equality” bill falls by one vote — with two supporters MIA from floor debate

It’s all over but the finger-pointing.

On the last day of the Tennessee Legislature’s regular session, a bill to grant public university in-state tuition to Tennessee students brought into this country as children by undocumented immigrant parents has failed for the year in the House, 49-47. Fifty votes are needed in the 99-member body for a bill to pass.

The “tuition equality” bill has been in the legislative mix for three years. Sponsored by Chattanooga Republican Todd Gardenhire in the Senate, it passed the upper chamber last week, 21-12.

The loss in the House was especially troubling to supporters of the measure because two House Democrats were absent when the vote was taken — Nashville Reps. Darren Jernigan and Bo Mitchell. Speaker Beth Harwell also skipped the vote on SB612, but she later said she would have voted against the bill anyway. Neither Harwell nor Mitchell were listed as “excused” from the vote, although Jernigan was.

As a result of its failure to receive the necessary amount of votes to move forward, the bill was re-referred to the House Calendar and Rules Committee where it’ll likely see action at the beginning of 2016.

Mitchell told TNReport later that having missed such a key higher-education vote “rips me up.”

“It’s unfortunate, I wish I’d gotten the opportunity to vote on the bill,” he said.

Mitchell explained that as a “citizen” legislator, he’s forced to balance the legislative schedule with his job duties, and that he had to attend a “mandatory work meeting” which prevented him from being present in the chamber when the bill came up. He acknowledged that he made no effort to seek formal recognition for an excused absence.

On the other hand, he pointed blame at the Republican sponsor of the bill, Memphis Rep. Mark White, for bringing the measure to a vote Wednesday morning. “The sponsor knew I wasn’t in the room, and knew I would be back after 1 o’clock,” Mitchell said.

Likewise, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart told TNReport that Rep. White had been informed beforehand of Mitchell’s absence. White could have elected to postpone debate and a vote on the until the afternoon. “Everybody was aware that Bo Mitchell was going to be back to vote, and so we certainly could have taken this vote when he was here, people chose to go forward — it was probably a smart move, but it didn’t work out,” Stewart said.

But White denied that he was made aware of Mitchell’s absence. “I didn’t get that message,” he said. And he was surprised when the bill failed because beforehand he was confident it had the necessary support to win passage.

All the same, White is optimistic the measure is a can’t-miss next year, “sitting alive and well in Calendar and Rules.”

The Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, who have been lobbying in support of the bill, released a statement shortly after the bill stalled in the House, criticizing those who had pledged support for “faltering at the last minute.”

“We wish that members of the General Assembly had demonstrated as much courage and leadership as the immigrant students who have fought for this legislation, the same students who are now effectively denied access to an affordable college education for another year,” said Stephanie Teatro, the organization’s co-executive director.

Alex Harris can be contacted at

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