(Updated 5 p.m. ) The Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee voted 11 to 8 in favor of a bill which would allow undocumented students, who have attended secondary school in Connecticut, to pay the same tuition rates as residents.

The measure received a fair amount of attention and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were torn over their support of the bill. That was until a public hearing earlier this week put some of them over the top.

Sen. Gary LeBeau, D-East Hartford, had been on the fence, but a “passionate” public hearing earlier this week convinced him to vote in favor of the bill,  even if it means losing his re-election bid.

He said this bill, which was vetoed in 2007 by former Gov. M. Jodi Rell, is even more difficult to vote for this year because there are divisions in society. But he said it was a moral issue and “if I’m not re-elected so be it.”

“We can’t afford to throw away this talent,” LeBeau said.

Rep. Pamela Sawyer, R-Bolton, said this is one of the most difficult bills the legislature will debate this year, but she voted against it because she can’t abide taking away seats from legal immigrants and giving them to illegal students.

“Affordability absolutely is an issue, but this is about a finite number of seats,” Sawyer said.

Rep. Claire Janowski, D-Vernon, voted the bill out of committee, but said she won’t be voting for it on the floor of the House because of what she’s heard from constituents.

She said one of her constituents had a granddaughter from New York who was living with her and was unable to get in-state tuition rates for her granddaughter.

Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven, said process of immigration is not the same as it was decades ago.

“I don’t think we’re going to take slots from anyone….This is based on their academic achievement,” Candelaria said. “We’re not providing them with a free ride. They have to pay for their tuition.”

Candelaria said even though no one talked about it, much of the decision making may be related to the current crop of Latino immigrants who it would apply to.

“If it wasn’t Latinos how would we react?,” he wondered. “Let’s forget about race.” 

Rep. Tim LeGeyt, R-Canton, said he was struck by the number of people who testified on the legislation and believes they have legitimate concerns. But in order to vote on the bill Thursday he said he had to separate out the passion of the public hearing and focus on the fiscal impact.

“In this case it comes down to costs,” LeGeyt said.

But Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford disagreed. She said there’s currently no fiscal note for the legislation, but every state that has instituted this has seen a positive fiscal impact.

However, she understands that caring and compassionate people can disagree about this bill. A lot of what we talked about is access and costs. Bye said “those two are inextricably linked.”

“If you can’t afford it, it’s not accessible to you.”

She said it’s appropriate that the committee was voting on the bill on St. Patrick’s Day when there are 50,000 undocumented Irish folks living in the United States.

Sen. Martin Looney, D-New Haven, who is not on the committee, but a longtime proponent of the legislation was happy it passed its first hurdle.

“The students who would benefit from this law aren’t asking for a handout or any special break; they simply want to be treated the same as their neighbors and friends,” said Looney. “Forcing these students to suffer for a decision their parents made very long ago doesn’t make sense.”