Push for In-state Tuition Break in Trouble in Florida

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by Gary Fineout, Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. ― Despite support from leading Republicans including Gov. Rick Scott, a push to offer a tuition break to students who entered the country illegally appears doomed again this year.

A key Republican state senator on Thursday used a procedural move to block the legislation from being heard next week in a Senate committee. The move makes it unlikely the bill will be considered since the annual session ends in early May.

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and Senate budget chief, in a lengthy statement defended his decision. He said that a need for the in-state tuition break “has not been established” and he raised questions on its potential costs.

But he also said the break should only go to students who are U.S. citizens and Florida residents. The in-state tuition rate is roughly one-quarter of the rate paid by out-of-state students.

“In-state tuition discounts should, in my view, be reserved for legal residents of Florida,” Negron stated. “Florida law does not prohibit students who are undocumented from accessing our state colleges and universities. Once these students favorably resolve their residency status, they could be become eligible for in-state tuition.”

The debate on in-state tuition for students who entered the country illegally has been perennial in Tallahassee. This election year it has emerged as a priority for some Republicans, including House Speaker Will Weatherford. But the proposal has needed Democratic support to survive since many other Republicans, including Senate President Don Gaetz, have remained opposed.

Scott came out in favor of the Senate bill earlier this year because it would also place limits on how much universities could raise tuition rates. Scott’s turnabout is a vast change from 2010 when he urged a strong crackdown on illegal immigration. Scott’s move comes during an election year when Hispanic voters could play a key role in deciding his re-election.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and sponsor of the in-state tuition bill, said he was “shocked” that Negron would “stand in the way of a majority of the Senate.” Latvala announced last week his bill had 20 co-sponsors and he predicted that 26 out of 40 senators would vote for it if reached the full Senate.

“What he has done is a slap in the face to our governor, who’s already announced support for this bill,” Latvala said. “And it’s a slap in the face for the speaker who put a lot on the line. It’s a slap in the face to Jeb Bush who had been taking fire from right-wing Republicans across the country because he spoke of his convictions on immigration.”

Weatherford said he was not giving up yet that the legislation could be passed. It cleared the Florida House by an 81-33 vote.

“There are a lot of folks praying for these kids,” Weatherford said. “Two weeks is a long time and I remain optimistic.”

The Senate bill (SB 1400) would offer the tuition break to anyone who had attended a Florida high school for three years prior to graduation. The legislation would also require any student seeking the tuition break to show proof that they had applied for citizenship.

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