The referendum on the Maryland "Dream Act" cleared its first legal hurdle on Friday after an Anne Arundel judge upheld the Maryland Board of Elections's ruling that the legislation can appear on ballots this November.
Anne Arundel Circuit Court Judge Ronald A. Silkworth ruled on Friday that the Dream Act—which would allow certain illegal immigrants to pay in-state rates at Maryland colleges—meets the state constitution’s standards for legislation that is subject to referendum.
The Maryland legislature passed the Dream Act in the final moments of the 2011 legislative session. Opponents immediately launched a statewide petition aiming to put the issue on the ballot this November. They collected nearly twice the minimum 55,736 signatures within two months, blocking the Dream Act’s July 1 start date.
In August, a coalition of immigrant advocates and labor and teachers’ unions challenged the Maryland Board of Elections’s decision to allow a referendum.
Dream Act supporters based their courtroom challenge on one of the legislation's primary critiques: that it will add to the state's financial burden. The Maryland Constitution bars fiscal appropriations from being subject to referendum.
Attorneys hired by Dream Act supporters—the D.C.-based law firm Sandler, Reiff & Young & Lamb—argued that the Dream Act is not subject to referendum because the increase in students paying in-state rates will require the state to allocate funds to cover the difference. (According to legislative researchers, Maryland taxpayers will pay an additional $788,000 in fiscal 2014 and up to $3.5 million in fiscal 2016 for the hundreds of illegal immigrants projected to enroll as in-state students thanks to the Dream Act.)
In his 13-page opinion, Silkworth opined that those costs are "incidental" to the Dream Act, not its main intent.
"The primary object of the Maryland Dream Act is to change the policy for in-state tuition rates, not to make an appropriation," Silkworth wrote. "If merely affecting an appropriation became the test for determining if a law actually makes an appropriation, the result would deprive voters of the important constitutional right of referendum."