UPDATED (6:45 p.m.)—At least five of the seven members of the Baltimore County Council will sign onto a letter encouraging county residents to support an effort to overturn a new state law that grants in-state tuition to illegal immigrants.
Councilman Todd Huff said Wednesday evening that Democratic Councilwoman Vicki Almond and Cathy Bevins will join with him, Council Chairman John A. Olszewski Sr. and David Marks in signing a letter of support as early as this week.
"This is a means of showing support as individuals," said Olszewski, a Dundalk Democrat. All three said the letter of support will serve in place of a resolution. The council historically has avoided approving resolutions taking stands on state and federal issues.
(Listen to Olszewski in a Wednesday afternoon interview with WBAL radio.)
By signing the letter, the council members are backing a statewide movement to overturn the Maryland Dream Act by placing the in-state tuition law on the 2012 ballot as a referendum that voters will vote up or down.
The Maryland Dream Act's supporters said the action by council members was not surprising, but was disappointing.
Elizabeth Alex, an organizer for Casa De Maryland in central Maryland, said she hopes "county residents will see beyond the tactics of fear and division."
Four other Democratic council members—Almond, Bevins, Ken Oliver and Tom Quirk—have not returned calls from a reporter seeking comment.
Proponents of the referendum drive received good news Tuesday when Maryland State Board of Elections officials certified that the group had turned in at least 18,500 valid signatures.
Results released late Wednesday afternoon show the group has 37,112 valid signatures with about 18,000 left to be verified. The issue will be placed on the 2012 ballot if they collect 55,736 signatures of registered voters by June 30.
Huff, a Timonium Republican, said the council members are asking county voters to support the referendum because the law could have an economic impact on the county.
The bill passed earlier this year by the General Assembly would grant in-state tuition, under certain circumstances, to illegal immigrants attending community colleges and the University of Maryland.
Sandra Kurtinitis, president of the Community College of Baltimore County, told the council in April that the law would have a minimal effect in the county.
Of the more than 74,000 students attending the college, by the change in the law, Kurtinitis said at the time.
It is not clear how the bill would affect the county's budget.
An analysis by the Department of Legislative Services estimates that the bill will cost the state an additional $778,400 in two years and more than $3.5 million in four years.
"Who knows what will happen in the future?" Marks said.
The council members' call to support the referendum drive comes at the same time that Maryland State Board of Elections statistics show county residents are signing the petition at rates higher than other surrounding counties. So far, more than 14,000 county residents signed the petition—about 23 percent of all signatures turned in at the May 31 deadline.
Of those signatures from the county, more than 12,000—about 84 percent—were judged valid by the county board of elections. That's nearly 40 percent of the more than 30,000 signatures ruled valid on Tuesday.
Marks, a Perry Hall Republican, has signed the petition. In fact, Marks said he used his campaign account to pay for half of a booth he shared with volunteers collecting signatures at the Towson Spring Festival.
Huff said he plans to sign the petition soon.
Olszewski has not yet signed the petition but added that he intends to do so.
"I do support the effort," said Olszewski. "I've just been too busy to sign it."
The letter of support from the Baltimore County Council members follows similar letters issued by Carroll and Frederick counties, which made similar statements of support at the end of May.
Alex said support from Olszewski and two Republicans was not surprising.
"What is somewhat disappointing and somewhat surprising is that the council would issue this letter given that the Census shows a growing Latino population in Baltimore County," Alex said.
The Hispanic population in the county more than doubled between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census Buerau.
In 2000, there were more than 13,700 Hispanics in the Baltimore County—about 1.8 percent of the population. That number grew to more than 33,800 or 4.2 percent of the county's population of 805,000 in 2010.
Alex said the number of signatures collected in the county and the expected letter from the council is representative of county's "long and difficult relationship with race issues."
"People are being polarized on this issue and succumbing to fear tactics and the misinformation that is out there," Alex said.
Del. Pat McDonough, a Middle River Republican and vocal opponent of the Dream Act, said opponents are "playing the race card because they can't win the argument on the merits."
"This is what I deal with all the time," McDonough said. "They're calling an entire county racists."
McDonough applauded the council members who are signing off on the letter.
"It's a good action on their part," McDonough said. "Baltimore County has the largest number of signatures of any other county."
Ann Miller, a Phoenix Republican who helped organize the petition drive in the county, said she would have liked the council to pass a resolution in support of the effort but said she's happy with the letter.
"Of course we would have liked a resolution but this is a good step in the right direction," Miller said.
For Miller, the resolution carried a symbolic importance, even if it didn't carry the force of law, because it would have required council members to vote for or against it.
"As far as the message to the people, there's really no difference," Miller said.
Historically, the council has not been willing to pass resolutions taking stands on state and federal issues.
Olszewski, who once unsuccessfully tried to have the council pass a resolution supporting a proposed federal law affecting unions, said as chairman he agrees that the council should continue to stay out of state and federal issues.
"This is a means of showing support as individuals," Olszewski said.