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Bascom Hall

Republican lawmakers on Tuesday accused Democratic Gov. Tony Evers of giving undocumented students more favorable treatment than military veterans in his proposed state budget. But as Republicans waged a campaign against the spending plan, Democrats argued the GOP opposition was based on a flawed comparison. 

Here's what they're fighting about.

Evers' budget would allow students who were brought to the United States illegally by their parents to pay in-state tuition to attend University of Wisconsin System and Wisconsin Technical College System schools, provided they meet certain requirements.

Undocumented students would be eligible for in-state tuition if they lived in Wisconsin for at least three years while attending high school, graduated from a Wisconsin high school or received an equivalency declaration from the state and provide proof that they have filed or will file an application for a permanent resident visa when they are eligible.

"We’re going to make sure that, regardless of whether a kid was born in this country, if they went to a Wisconsin high school and have lived here for three years, they shouldn’t have to pay more for tuition like an out-of-state student — they should be treated like any other kid from Wisconsin," Evers said in his budget address to the Legislature last month.

For the 2019-20 academic year, resident tuition for UW-Madison is $10,555. Nonresident tuition is $37,615.

Authorities have estimated there are nearly 8,000 recipients of DACA — the Obama-era policy halting deportation of Dreamers — in Wisconsin.

According to a National Conference of State Legislatures report, 21 other states and the District of Columbia have laws or policies providing in-state tuition rates for undocumented students.

Under current law, military veterans are eligible to have 100 percent of their tuition and fees not already covered by the federal G.I. Bill paid by the state.

To qualify for tuition remission, a student must be identified by the Department of Veterans Affairs as having qualifying military service, being a resident of Wisconsin for the purpose of receiving benefits — 12 months, for the purpose of receiving in-state tuition — and having been a Wisconsin resident at time of entry into the armed services or having lived in Wisconsin at least five years before enrollment.

In other words, veterans who were Wisconsin residents when they started their military service do not have to wait five years to be eligible for remission, but veterans who moved to Wisconsin after their service must live in Wisconsin for five years before they are eligible.

Veteran students are also required to maintain a cumulate grade point average of 2.0 to continue receiving remission.

Evers' budget does not change this benefit. 

Republican lawmakers, some of whom are veterans themselves, said Evers' proposal shows he values undocumented immigrants over veterans.

"Governor Evers has misplaced priorities if he thinks it’s acceptable that undocumented immigrants should have an easier path to in-state tuition than our veterans," said Rep. Jesse James, R-Altoona, in a statement. "It’s frankly quite disgusting and a disservice to those that have served and defended this country’s freedoms, freedoms that make it possible for the Wisconsin Idea to exist."

Republicans called on the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee to remove the provision from the budget, arguing undocumented students have to meet a lower standard to receive in-state tuition rates than veterans do to receive tuition remission. 

They argued the cost of the benefit for in-state tuition is lower than what the state pays for veterans' remission, because the state only covers what is not already paid under the federal G.I. Bill. 

"As a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, it’s offensive that Governor Evers would give benefits to illegal immigrants that put them in front of the men and women who dedicated their lives to keeping Wisconsin safe," said Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, in a statement. "Yet again, Governor Evers’ is leaving Wisconsinites behind in favor of extreme policies supported by the radical Left. The governor has decided that those who are violating federal law should get a better deal than Wisconsin’s heroes."

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Democrats said Republicans were making an apples-to-oranges comparison.

The benefit being proposed in Evers' budget is in-state tuition for undocumented immigrant students. The veterans' benefit Republicans are highlighting is tuition remission to offset costs not covered by the federal G.I. Bill. 

"The five-year residency requirement for veterans is for full tuition coverage under the GI Bill and has nothing to do with whether veterans pay in-state tuition. In-state tuition is available for every citizen, including veterans, by establishing 12 months of Wisconsin residency," said Rep. Jimmy Anderson, D-Fitchburg, in a statement.

Anderson argued it should be easier for both veterans and undocumented immigrants to establish residency for tuition purposes, and accused Republicans of attempting to pit people against each other.

"Comparing these two residency requirements is like comparing apples and oranges. Republicans are hoping that xenophobic attacks will obscure the facts, but Wisconsin is better than that," said Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa, D-Milwaukee, in a statement. "We can support Wisconsin students who are following the rules and want to make a better life for themselves, and we can support our brave men and women who fight for all us."

An Evers spokeswoman did not comment on the Republican arguments.

Regardless of this debate, Evers' proposal is unlikely to become law as long as Republicans hold majorities in the Legislature. 

Republicans have said they will likely scrap Evers' proposal entirely and work from current funding levels to craft a spending plan.

"There was a complete disregard this evening for whether or not we could get the votes or momentum to actually get a budget done in this fashion," Fitzgerald said the night Evers introduced his budget. "It’s been completely thrown out the window at this point."

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