Student Council lobbies General Assembly in support of in-state tuition for DREAMers, input before tuition increases

Three members meet with senators, delegates to express support for various Senate and House bills

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Student Council members Holli Foster, a second-year College student and vice chair of legislative affairs (left); Alex Cintron, a fourth-year College student and Student Council president (center); and Isaac Weintz, a third-year College student and chair of Student Council’s legislative affairs committee (right), pose for a picture on the steps of the Capitol building in Richmond. 

Geremia Di Maro | Cavalier Daily

In the depths of Richmond’s Pocahontas building Jan. 29, three members of Student Council traversed crowded hallways in pursuit of delegates and senators of the General Assembly to express their support for several bills being considered by the legislative body. 

In particular, Student Council’s focus most recently has been on Senate Bills 1026, 1118 and 1640 as well as House Bill 2173 — which is similar to SB 1118 and was approved by the House Jan. 29. The bills relate to issues such as early absentee voting, accountability for higher education institutes when raising tuition and in-state tuition for DREAMer students. 

The three Student Council members were Alex Cintron, a fourth-year College student and Student Council president; Isaac Weintz, a third-year College student and chair of Student Council’s legislative affairs committee; and Holli Foster, a second-year College student and vice chair of legislative affairs. 

By meeting with General Assembly members and legislative aides, the group hoped to inject the voice of the University’s student body into the legislative process on behalf of Student Council. Dozens of lobbyists and others expressing support or opposition to a variety of bills being considered by the General Assembly also crowded the doorways of lawmakers. 

Foster said the University’s Student Council is uniquely positioned to advocate for certain issues at the General Assembly due to its ability to lobby on behalf of students — under the principle of “student self-governance” — rather than as an extension of University administration, which she added lobbies for legislation in opposition to Student Council’s agenda at times. 

Weintz, Foster and Cintron visited the offices of lawmakers to speak in favor of each bill but often had to speak with a legislative aide or secretary since many senators were in a committee session during the day. 

Among the lawmakers of interest were Senators Mark Peake (R-Lynchburg), John Cosgrove (R-Chesapeake), Jill Vogel (R-Upperville), Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico) and Del. David Toscano (D-Charlottesville). Weintz said the lawmakers were chosen based on their membership on various committees which are considering or will consider the bills Student Council supports. 

More specifically, Deeds, Cosgrove and Peake are all members of the Privileges and Elections committee, while Vogel serves as its chair. Dunnavant, Cosgrove and Peake are 

members of the Education and Health Committee. Dunnavant and Vogel also serve on the Finance committee. 

Making early voting more accessible for students 

SB 1026 was originally proposed by Sen. Lionell Spruill (D-Chesapeake) and sought to allow for any eligible, registered Virginia voter to cast an absentee ballot without the current requirement of filing a documented excuse for doing so. Currently, there are a wide variety of excuses which an individual may claim to vote absentee in Virginia — including disability, military service, employment commitments and student status. 

At a Jan. 29 meeting of the Senate Privileges and Elections committee, which Spruill is a member of, the bill was combined with three other Senate bills regarding looser restrictions on absentee voting. The finalized version of the bill was unanimously approved by the committee. The bill was unanimously approved by the Senate Monday and was referred to the House Privileges and Elections Committee Wednesday. 

During the Committee meeting, Spruill said the combined version of the bill would not affect how absentee voting by mail already takes place, in which voters can submit an absentee ballot by mail beginning 45 days before an election if they have a valid excuse. However, the current version of the bill would allow voters to cast an absentee ballot in-person without an excuse beginning the second Saturday before an election and ending the Saturday immediately preceding the election. Spruill said the changes would take place beginning with the November 2020 election, following a review of the process by the State Board of Elections later this year. 

Following Spruill’s explanation of the bill, Cintron endorsed the legislation on behalf of Student Council during a public comment session of the meeting. 

During a meeting with a legislative assistant for Vogel, Weintz said one of the central purposes of Student Council’s legislative affairs committee is to facilitate voter registration and information during elections — specifically citing a number of efforts the committee has undertaken to register more than 2,500 students on Grounds during the 2018 midterm elections. 

“One of the things that we’ve encountered is a lot of students are under the perception that being a student is not a legal excuse for absentee voting,” Weintz said. “A lot of students don't end up doing it because they're under the perception that because Virginia has these restrictions on who’s eligible for absentee voting, that they are not under those permissible excuses.” 

Weintz added that, while Student Council supports student participation and engagement in Charlottesville politics, SB 1026 would encourage students who want to vote in elections in their hometowns to do so. 

During a meeting with Deeds, he said he has long supported excuse-free early voting, adding that it should be as easy as possible for voters to participate in elections. 

“Why should you have to tell people why you want to vote early?” Deeds said. “We Americans want instant gratification, we want to know who the winner is right away — why hold elections on a Tuesday when most people have to work? In northern Virginia, there are tens of thousands of people that either can’t vote or don't get to the polls on time or just don't vote because its a pain in the neck. Voting should be easy, and we ought to encourage participation.”

Holding the Board of Visitors accountable before tuition increases

SB 1118 was originally proposed by Sen. J. Chapman Petersen (D-Fairfax) and seeks to require the governing board of public higher education institutes in Virginia to hold public comment periods at a meeting of the board before a proposed tuition increase is considered. The bill would also allow for such boards to establish policy guidelines for these public comment periods. The current version of SB 1118 was most recently approved in a unanimous vote by the Senate Finance committee Thursday. The bill was unanimously approved by the Senate Tuesday and will likely be considered by the House this week. 

“We understand that tuition increases are an element of higher education, [and] they're an element of financing this school,” Weintz said in a meeting with Deeds. “But we want the student voice to be an active part of the tution conversation, and we feel like public universities and colleges across the commonwealth fail to connect and talk about [tuition increases].” 

Foster cited the Board of Visitors most recent decision to increase tuition in December 2017 — by 2.9 percent for in-state College students, or $13,682 to $14,078, and by 3.5 percent for out-of-state College students, or $44,724 to $46,289 — as an example of how the University has excluded students from the tuition policy development process in the past by scheduling votes on proposed increases during final exams. 

Weintz added that Student Council has been working with University administration during the past several months to provide insight into tution policy and how student’s payments are spent. For example, Melody Stowe Bianchetto, the University’s vice president for finance, presented an overview of the University’s $1.8 billion budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year to the Student Council at a meeting in October. 

“Of course that's not solving the problem, but it’s steps towards greater transparency,” Weintz said. “[It’s] steps towards making progress in the conversation of college affordability.” 

In a previous interview with The Cavalier Daily, Cintron said University administration has typically reached out to student leaders only weeks before Board of Visitor votes were scheduled to take place on proposed tuition increases, adding that plans to increase tuition were expected to be communicated to the student body without incorporating any feedback. He added that this approach by the University has failed to properly engage the student body on the issue. 

Deeds said there should be room for student and parent input into the tuition development process, adding that a representative elected by the student body to serve on the Board of Visitors would be more representative of student perspectives than the current system at the University in which an administration-led selection committee chooses among a pool of student applicants to select a non-voting student member to the board. 

Jane Dittmar, Toscano’s chief of staff, said during a meeting that Toscano supported public input at all levels of government from the General Assembly to local and regional public boards, such as those that govern higher education institutes. Dittmar said tuition increases are the result of lapses in state funding to colleges and universities. As of 2017, state funds comprised about 10 percent of the University’s budget, although it has steadily declined in recent years resulting in about $7.5 million dollars in funding cuts. 

Easing the financial burden of DREAMers through in-state tuition 

SB 1640 was originally proposed by Sen. Jennifer Boysko (D-Herndon), and its current form would allow for individuals, such as DREAMers, who “[have] filed an application to become a permanent resident of the United States ... or will do so as soon as [they] become eligible for such permanent residency” to receive in-state tuition at higher education institutes in Virginia. However, such individuals would also have to meet all of the current requirements for in-state tuition at higher education institutes to be eligible — such as proof of Virginia income tax or valid exemption and planned enrollment at a college or university. 

DREAMers refers to those students affected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, or DACA, which allows certain unregistered immigrants who entered the country as minors to have a renewable deferred action from deportation and be able to acquire a work permit. In September 2017, the Trump Administration took steps to begin phasing out the policy initiated by former President Barack Obama in 2012. 

“If these students are living in the Commonwealth, they're contributing to the tax revenue, they're contributing to this society, [and] they should benefit from the benefits of being a Virginian,” Weintz said in a meeting with Deeds. 

Deeds said it was unjust to consider DREAMers illegally present in the United States as they were children upon immigrating into the country. “They've basically been here their whole lives,” Deeds said. “And people may want to say they're here illegally, but they're not here illegally through any act of their own.”

Weintz later added that Student Council has worked closely with members of DREAMers on Grounds, who have communicated that in-state tuition would lift a significant financial burden off of DREAMer students at the University. DREAMers on Grounds is an organization at the University that works to protect undocumented students and their families and inform the local community of the issues faced by immigrants.

SB 1640 was most recently tabled by the Senate Health and Education committee in a narrow 8-7 vote. Cosgrove, Dunnavant and Peake all voted in favor of tabling the bill. 

A living wage for contracted employees at the University? 

In addition to the bills which Student Council supports passage of, Cintron also discussed the matter of implementing a living wage for contracted employees at the University with Deeds and Dittmar.

According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living wage calculator — which estimates the living wage needed to support individuals and families based on the cost of basic necessities — a living wage in the City of Charlottesville is $12.02 per hour for a single adult or $16.95 per hour for a family of four in which both parents work. The University’s dining provider, Aramark, currently pays a base wage of $10.65 an hour.

In a meeting with Deeds, Cintron referenced a 2002 non-binding legal opinion authored by Jerry Kilgore — at the time, the state’s Republican attorney general — that declared localities could not require their contractors pay contracted employees any set wage amount under the Virginia Public Procurement Act, writing that “a ‘living wage’ requirement is unrelated to the goods or services to be procured.” 

Deputy Attorney General David Johnson, a deputy of Bob McDonnell — the state’s Republican attorney general in 2006 — wrote a letter to the University’s then-Executive Vice President Leonard Sandridge, confirming McDonnell believed that the 2002 opinion was applicable to the University. Six years later, a spokesperson for then-Republican Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said in a published statement that Cuccinelli believed that Virginia codes restricted any state agencies from requiring contractors to pay a living wage.

During an interview with The Cavalier Daily in December, University President Jim Ryan said the University must determine the legality of requiring that Aramark pay its contracted workers a higher wage. When asked about his support for a higher contracted wage, ignoring the legal issue, Ryan did not take a stance, saying he needed to do more research.

When Cintron inquired about the possibility of senators and delegates to issue requests for legal reinterpretation of opinions authored by the Attorney General, Deeds said he would be willing to approach the office of Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring about a reinterpretation of Kilgore’s 2002 opinion. 

Deeds added that he was confident in Ryan’s willingness to address a variety of issues based on the initiatives he has spearheaded so far, even more so than previous University President Teresa Sullivan. For example, Ryan established a community working group in October that has identified wages at the University as one of seven areas of interest which administration seeks to address. The group is expected to release a report including findings and recommendations by the end of this month after the public engagement process is completed. 

“I liked Terry Sullivan too, I think she was a breath of fresh air, but I think this guy [Ryan] is a gale of fresh air,” Deeds said. “I think he is the guy that's going to put Virginia on the cusp of advancement … Virginia has long been one of the top public universities in the country, but it's going to be a new University under Jim Ryan.” 

During a meeting with Dittmar, Cintron also inquired about the possibility of Toscano approaching Herring’s office for a reinterpretation of Kilgore’s 2002 opinion. Dittmar said Toscano and Deeds could potentially cooperate with Student Council in asking Herring’s office for a reinterpretation but added that such requests can often take several months to be processed, if they are even considered. 

While Weintz later said it is difficult to measure the exact influence of Student Council’s lobbying efforts, he added that it is important for lawmakers to hear from a Student Council that represents more than 30,000 students who reside in Virginia for most of the year. 

“Regardless of how much leverage we feel like we actually have, it’s important for our voice to be heard,” Weintz said. “Anybody that's willing to speak up, should speak up —  every voice is valid, every voice has weight.” 

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