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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – Gov. Rick Scott demanded Tuesday that the Senate vote on allowing some undocumented immigrant students to pay in-state tuition at Florida universities, shortly after a late push to get the issue onto the floor stalled in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

In his strongest comments to date in support of the legislation, Scott criticized the panel’s move, which closed off one of a rapidly shrinking list of options to pass the proposal before the legislative session ends May 2.

“For Florida’s students, it’s extremely disappointing,” Scott said during a hastily called press conference outside his office. “We have 21 Senate sponsors, we have four other senators that have voted for this in committee assignments — this needs to get to the floor of the Senate.”

The remarks marked the latest step in a political evolution for Scott, who promised Hispanic lawmakers in February only that he would consider the legislation, then began tepidly supporting it and has recently started to push lawmakers to approve it.

The governor, who originally came to office threatening to crack down on undocumented immigrants, said Tuesday that his opinion on the issue was shaped by stories he’s heard from students who grew up in Florida and would benefit from being able to pay the cheaper, in-state tuition rates.

“We’ve got to give these children the same opportunities of all children,” he said. “Whatever country you were born in — whatever family or ZIP code — you ought to have the chance to live the dream.”

Scott’s support for the proposal has coincided with a tough re-election campaign against former Gov. Charlie Crist. Republicans hope that the issue could boost the unpopular governor with Hispanic voters, who are expected to play a key role in November.

American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas, who supports the bill on its merits, also acknowledged that it would help Scott’s fortunes.

“I don’t think that leadership is looking at this from a political perspective,” he said. “If they were, this issue would be on the floor, passing right now.”

Scott pointedly noted Tuesday that Crist had signed legislation allowing universities to raise tuition without legislative approval — something the legislation would also curtail — and had previously opposed efforts to grant in-state rates to undocumented students.

“We’re cleaning up his mess,” Scott said.

That drew a sharp response from the Crist campaign, which pointed out that Senate President Don Gaetz said Tuesday that the first time he had spoken with Scott about the issue was two days ago.

“Rick Scott’s continued failure to help innocent, bright undocumented students is as deplorable as his refusal to accept responsibility for anything. … Rick Scott’s desperate accusations are fraudulent,” said Kevin Cate, a spokesman for Crist.

The political scuffle came as the chances for the legislation seemed to dwindle. Last week, Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, announced that his committee would not hear the bill (SB 1400) that includes in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants.

That prompted bill sponsor Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, to begin looking for other ways to push the language through by attaching it to other bills.

The Senate Appropriations Committee refused to hear an amendment Tuesday from Latvala that would have added the in-state tuition proposal to an unrelated education bill. In an ironic twist, Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher — who supports the immigrant-tuition bill and chairs Scott’s campaign — ruled that the amendment was not close enough to the other bill’s original subject to be considered.

Latvala complained that the Senate often allowed unrelated amendments.

“I think it’s wrong to deny the people of Florida that are affected by this a vote by us on this issue,” he said.

Supporters of the tuition proposal said they still believed there was a chance for the legislation to pass. House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican who has championed the tuition proposal for months, expressed confidence that the Senate would vote on the measure.

“My guess is that there is still plenty of time for a thoughtful discussion on this issue,” he said. “And I believe that it will have its opportunity to be heard on the floor. I can’t explain how that’s going to happen, because I’m in the House and not in the Senate.”

Gaetz, one of the legislation’s most prominent opponents, also didn’t rule it out.

Talking about the Latvala bill’s chances after the committee’s action, Gaetz appeared more conciliatory in contrast to his remarks Friday, in which he said that the Senate would not bend its rules to allow the bill to be withdrawn from committee.

“You see it often in Senate session where a bill is withdrawn from the committees of reference,” said Gaetz, R-Niceville. “There’s plenty of time left in the session. The bill may or may not make it to the floor but my thumb is not on the scale, has not been from the beginning except that I’ve said, as the senator from Northwest Florida, I will vote against the bill.”

Gaetz also denied that he had any role in Negron’s decision not to schedule the bill for a hearing.

“None. Let me emphasize that. None,” Gaetz told reporters who caught him outside the committee meeting late Tuesday afternoon. “I did not influence him. I did not ask him not to hear the bill. I did not ask him to hear the bill. I told him it was entirely his decision.”

Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said he believes supporters of the measure are “close to” the 27 votes necessary to take up the House bill on the Senate floor or to have the measure withdrawn from its committees.

Thrasher also said he “did his job” by ruling that the Latvala amendment wasn’t germane to the underlying bill.

“The bill’s still alive,” Thrasher told reporters. “I did my job. That’s the bottom line. … I’m not into predicting but I still think (the tuition proposal) has a good chance of passing.”

This report is by Brandon Larrabee and Dara Kam with The News Service of Florida.


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