TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – Gov. Rick Scott and former governors Jeb Bush and Bob Martinez on Friday pushed the state Senate to advance a measure that would allow some undocumented immigrant students to pay in-state tuition rates.
The highly unusual move came a day after Senate budget chief Joe Negron announced he would not hear the bill next week, a decision that could doom the plan, a priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford. The issue has divided Republicans in Florida and across the country.
“Students who have spent their childhood here in Florida deserve to qualify for the same in-state tuition rate at universities their peers and classmates do. We want our students to stay here in Florida when they go to college and when they choose a career, and that means we must make college more affordable for all those students who call Florida home. The Florida Senate should take immediate action to move SB 1400 forward,” Scott, who is seeking re-election, said in a statement issued by his office on behalf of the three GOP governors.
Scott’s comments Friday were his strongest yet on the issue, viewed as a way for the governor to gain favor with Hispanic voters the Republican incumbent alienated during his first campaign when he pledged to bring an Arizona-style immigration law to Florida. Scott further angered Hispanics, considered a critical voting bloc in the fall general election, when he vetoed a widely supported measure last year that would have allowed children of some illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses.
“We must keep and capitalize on the talent of all Florida students who want to attend our exceptional colleges and universities. Punishing some children for their parents’ acts by creating obstacles to a college degree isn’t in their interests, or ours. I urge the Florida Senate to do the right thing for our state and pass SB 1400,” said Bush, an icon in Florida Republican politics who is considering a run for president in 2016 and has been a harsh critic of his party’s treatment of Hispanics.
Negron’s refusal to hear the measure and Scott’s reaction Friday sparked an intra-party schism likely to cast an ominous shadow over the final two weeks of the legislative session. Lawmakers return to Tallahassee on Monday after a week-long break for the Passover and Easter holidays.
Senate President Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who previously said that he personally opposes the measure but would not prevent it from coming to the floor for a vote, offered a terse response to the governors’ request for action on the bill. The House approved its version in an 81-33 vote last month.
“Neither Governor Scott nor any former Florida governor has ever contacted President Gaetz about this issue. Senators unanimously approved the Senate rules that govern bills not heard in Senate committees. The president will follow the Senate rules,” Gaetz’s spokeswoman Katie Betta said in an e-mail Friday.
When told of Gaetz’s response, Scott spokesman John Tupps said, “The governor’s support of SB 1400 is no surprise — it has been widely reported, and our administration, including Lt. Governor (Carlos) Lopez-Cantera, has been working with Senate leadership on the bill.”
The Senate sponsor of the measure, Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala, said last week that half of the Senate had joined him in supporting the measure, meaning he had enough votes to pass the bill if it reached the floor.
“I’m speechless. I think I’m just speechless,” the typically garrulous Latvala said Friday when told of Gaetz’s statement. “I’ve heard President Gaetz say on many occasions publicly and privately that he wanted to run the Senate as a member-driven body. We have an example here of an issue that we have 21 signed public cosponsors for the bill which is a majority of the Senate. I think that for Senator Gaetz to stand in the way of that single-handedly flies in the face of the statements he has made of it being a member-driven process.”
Latvala, engaged in a bitter battle with Negron over who will take over as Senate president after the 2016 elections, said he believes that “the issue is still going to be heard” before the session ends on May 2 but did not elaborate. But, procedurally, that would be difficult. Senate support for Latvala’s measure falls far short of the two-thirds required to withdraw the bill from Negron’s Appropriations Committee or to take up the House bill.
Latvala also called Negron’s refusal to hear the bill “a slap in the face” to Bush.
“Jeb has taken a lot of gas for his comments on immigration from some of the fringe parts of the Republican Party. Jeb made what I thought were heartfelt comments about immigration and why people want to come to this country to protect their families. To treat this bill this way, that Joe knows is important to Jeb Bush, is just piling on him and an additional slap in the face for a guy who has supported him,” Latvala said.
Latvala’s proposal would create an exemption from much-higher, out-of-state tuition rates for all students, regardless of their immigration status, so long as they have attended a Florida secondary school for at least three consecutive years before graduating from high school. Undocumented students would also have to sign affidavits saying that they had applied for or would apply for legalization. The measure also includes a component that would limit universities’ ability to increase tuition up to 15 percent a year without legislative approval, something Scott has pushed and part of the governor’s overall crusade to reduce college and university costs.
In a text message sent Friday afternoon, Negron said he has “the utmost respect and admiration for Gov. Bush and hope he runs for president.”
Negron added: “It was an honor to work with him when I served in the House. While he and I have a different perspective on this issue, we share a commitment to educational opportunity for all students in Florida.”
David Custin, a Miami-based lobbyist and political consultant with close ties to Hispanic legislators and business leaders, said he believes the bill still has a “50-50 chance” of passing.
But failure could cost Scott with both young and Hispanic voters in what is expected to be a tight match-up with likely opponent Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor now running as a Democrat, Custin said.
“It’s a close race and those are two demographics that Scott needs to help him. If this bill does not reach the Senate floor for a vote, it hurts Scott’s strategic chances for re-election,” Custin said. “The press has been complaining about how boring this session is. You can’t say it’s boring anymore. It will lead to two weeks of fireworks.”
This report is by Dara Kam with The News Service of Florida.