Whether or not Marylanders can vote on the Dream Act this fall will depend on one question: Is the immigrant tuition law really a spending bill?
That's the crux of a case heard before the state's highest court -- the Maryland Court of Appeals -- on Tuesday morning.
In Maryland, budget and spending bills can't be voted on in a referendum.
"Tuition is about money," said Joseph Sandler, a Washington-based attorney representing Casa de Maryland, an immigrants' rights group that supports the Dream Act.
The Dream Act was passed by the General Assembly during state lawmakers' annual 90-day session in 2011.
The law allows certain illegal immigrant students to pay in-state tuition rates -- first at community college, then at state universities -- if they meet criteria such as graduating from a Maryland high school and proving their parents pay taxes.
Opponents of the law quickly gathered enough signatures to put the law on hold and force a voter referendum.
Casa de Maryland and several students then sued to block the referendum.
Sandler argued that the Dream Act changes the number of in-state students at community colleges. That, in turn, alters a funding state formula for community colleges that's named after the late Sen. John A. Cade of Anne Arundel County.
"The bill, according to the Department of Legislative Services, will require the governor to include additional amounts in future budget bills for support of community colleges, as well as reducing tuition revenue to the University of Maryland system," Sandler told the seven-judge panel.
Some judges quizzed Sandler on that point. Judge Mary Ellen Barbera noted that many bills passed by lawmakers have financial ramifications.
"Is this relationship somehow unique?" she asked. "Because I can conceptualize any number of circumstances where legislation would have ... a fiscal impact down the road."
Sandler replied that the community college formula is a state-mandated spending rules.
Matthew Fader, an assistant attorney general representing the state Board of Elections, had a different view.
He said the Dream Act simply changes eligibility for in-state tuition and doesn't mandate any specific levels of state spending.
"The focus of the law is not at all on the state's money, on either raising or spending the money," Fader said. "The focus of the law is on basically creating an equity among two categories of students who are currently not eligible for in-state tuition and those students who are eligible for in-state tuition."
Judges also heard from Paul Orfanedes, an attorney with Judicial Watch, who represents the group Mdpetitions.com, which led the charge to gather signatures to put the Dream Act on the ballott.
Orfanedes questioned whether Casa de Maryland or the students even qualified to bring a lawsuit over the referendum. They've offered no proof that they'd be harmed by the public vote or by the law being overturned, he said.
It's not clear yet when the judges will rule, though attorneys expected a decision to come soon because ballots must be prepared in advance of the Nov. 6 election.
Del. Neil Parrott, an opponent of the Dream Act and organizer of Mdpetitions.com, said after the hearing that he's confident the referendum will move forward. He said the other side is "grasping at straws."
He doesn't think the judges would declare the Dream Act to be an appropriations bill because it would disqualify tons of bills from being petitioned to a referendum -- maybe even same-sex marriage because it involves fees for marriage licenses.
"If we were to say this is an appropriation bill, it's going to severely limit the referendum process," he said.
A Casa of Maryland spokeswoman was equally confident following the hearing.
Kimberley Propeack, Casa's political action and communications director, said she's confident the Dream Act will stand.
"Whether we win in the courts or we win in November, we will win," she said. "We feel confident we're going to get our kids in college."
Propeack said none of the young people in the lawsuit -- some who gave their names as well as one Jane Doe and one John Doe -- attended the Court of Appeals hearing. "We have them out on the street collecting pledge cards," Propeack said.
Casa of Maryland has been trying to drum up support for the Dream Act, asking people to sign pledges to vote in favor of the law if it's on the ballot.
The group also has been using social media to try and draw President Barack Obama's attention to the Maryland Dream Act, coinciding with his closed-door fundraisers in the Baltimore area Tuesday.
If the Dream Act makes it on the ballot, it could be one of three statewide referendum questions.
Though it's not official yet, elections officials have verifying more than enough signatures to put Maryland's same-sex marriage law on the ballot.
Elections officials just started reviewing signatures for an effort to put the state's new Congressional district boundaries on the ballot.
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