Opponents of Maryland's plan to offer in-state college tuition rates to illegal immigrants are optimistic that they can stop the measure in its tracks.
A Republican-led petition drive to repeal the bill approved last month by the Democratic-led General Assembly began in earnest last week and has been welcomed enthusiastically by voters across the state, organizers say.
To succeed, they will have to collect 55,736 signatures — the equivalent of 3 percent of voters in the last gubernatorial election — by June 30. That would suspend the measure until November 2012, when voters would decide its fate in a referendum.
The first batch of more than 18,500 signatures is due by the end of this month.
"We're off to a fantastic start," said Del. Neil C. Parrott, the Washington County Republican who is leading the petition drive. He would not say how many signatures have already been collected, but said he passed around the petition last week at a Washington Nationals baseball game and couldn't believe how excited Marylanders were to sign on.
"You just start to explain the issue and a lot of people say, 'Give me the form. I want to sign it right now.'"
The bill, which Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley could sign as early as next week, would enable undocumented students to pay the residential rate to attend a public college or university, so long as they had attended at least three years of high school in Maryland and their families had paid state taxes.
An eligible student would start at a community college and could transfer to a four-year college after completing 60 credits.
Students could save $6,000 a year at a community college, and more than $15,000 per year at a four-year institution such as the University of Maryland, College Park.
Legislative analysts say the program will cost the state $3.5 million annually by 2016. Critics believe the cost could be far higher. Ten other states give tuition breaks to illegal immigrants.
Advocates for immigrants say they are taking a wait-and-see approach to the petition drive.
"Our strategy is to wait and get through the May deadline and see if they get anywhere close," said Kim Propeack, director of community organizing and political action for Casa de Maryland. She said it would be "a huge endeavor" to reach the signature requirement.
"We continue to believe that a majority of Marylanders support the bill, especially if it is accurately described."
Noting that there are rules against committing fraud to obtain signatures, Propeack said Casa de Maryland has consulted with lawyers in case the petition is certified and the group decides to challenge it.
State elections officials rejected a summary of the legislation that petition organizers had proposed to distribute. Instead, they are to attach the text of the entire bill with each signature page.
Maryland gives voters the opportunity to petition for the final say on most new laws. However, rules for petition drives are strict: Opponents have just a few months to gather tens of thousands of signatures, and to be counted, each must match or nearly match the exact name as it appears on the signer's voter registration card.
The rejection rate is so high that the State Board of Elections recommends petitioners submit at least 30 percent more signatures than the required number, to account for those that will be deemed invalid.
Successful statewide petition efforts in Maryland are relatively rare.
Two years ago, a signature drive to repeal legislation enabling speed cameras fell short. In 2006, opponents of early voting gathered enough signatures for a referendum, but the courts overturned the legislation, making voter review unnecessary. A state law affirming a woman's right to an abortion was challenged in a 1992 referendum, but was ultimately approved by voters.
But opponents of extending in-state tuition breaks to illegal immigrants say they have combined the traditional boots-on-the-ground with a sophisticated website, mdpetitions.com, to overcome the hurdles.
"First, I want to thank Al Gore for inventing the Internet," said Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a key petition drive organizer. "It's playing a major role, and we have already had a tremendous number of hits."
The site links with Maryland's voter registration database to automatically fill in the correct name and address of a petition signer, who then may print out, sign and date the form and mail it to the organizers. The mailing address is provided on a printed page that can be folded into an envelope.
McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican, said the Internet also makes it easier for people to volunteer to circulate the petition because all of the materials can be printed out from the site, which also includes talking points. An example: "Many Marylanders cannot afford to send their own children to college, and yet this bill uses their tax dollars to pay for illegals to go to college."