Allowing illegal - or undocumented - immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates cleared what was expected to be a major hurdle in the Senate, with the Judiciary Committee giving overwhelming approval Tuesday to the election-year proposal that has divided Republicans.
After impassioned pleas on both sides of the issue, the committee signed off on the proposal (SB 1400), a top priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford, in a 7-2 vote.
Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican and veteran lawmaker, told the panel he had sponsored more than 500 bills prior to taking on the postsecondary tuition proposal earlier this year.
"And I can't think of one that I believe will have a more profound effect on the future of our state of any that I've done than this bill I have today," Latvala said.
Latvala's bill includes a provision pushed by Gov. Rick Scott that potentially lowers higher-ed costs for all students by doing away with 15 percent annual tuition increases that universities can impose without legislative approval. The House version, sponsored by Rep. Jeanette Nunez, R-Miami, would lower the "tuition differential" from 15 percent to 6 percent.
The most contentious component of the bill would allow students who have attended at least three consecutive years of high school in Florida --- but who lack authorization to be in the country --- to pay cheaper, in-state tuition at state colleges and universities. According to Latvala, average nonresident tuition is $21,434 annually, more than triple the $6,318 in-state average.
“I think it’s so important to be able to show a brighter path, education wise, for some of these kids, and maybe give them something better to do than being a dishwasher or a maid or something like that in a hotel," Latvala told reporters after the meeting.
Latvala said that he plans to align his proposal with the House plan, which requires four years of Florida schooling and reduces but does not eliminate the tuition differential. The changes could pose problems for Scott, who in his first bid for governor four years ago pledged to bring an Arizona-style immigration law to the state.
Scott has publicly refused to address the immigrant tuition portion of the bill and instead focused on the tuition differential.
"So what I've said is I support the bill that came out of the Senate Judiciary Committee today but I'm going to work with the Senate and the House to make sure that we have a bill that lowers tuition for all Floridians," Scott said when asked what he thought about allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates.
But Santa Rosa County tea party activist James Calkins blasted Scott and GOP senators for backing the bill.
"I have attended plenty of meetings where I can tell you plenty of people are angry at Gov. Scott for supporting this bill, and it is clearly damaging our get-out-the-vote efforts for 2014. A lot of tea party people are telling us that they will stay home for the 2014 election if college tuition for illegal immigrants is signed into law," Calkins said.
Calkins drew a rebuke from Margate Democrat Jeremy Ring.
"This is not a political rally," Ring objected.
The committee also heard from students who grew up in Florida but were forced to pay up to four times as much to attend college or university in the state.
Camilo Rozo said he graduated from high school with a 4.5 GPA but was unable to take advantage of the Bright Futures scholarship program because he was brought to the country by his parents when he was a year old.
Rozo, now 26, is a pharmacy student at the University of Florida. He said that his student loans will total more than $250,000 by the time he receives a doctorate degree.
"I want nothing more than to earn my place in my community," Rozo said. "Most of us just want to show our diploma with pride."
Latvala, whose bill faces another committee hearing before reaching the Senate floor, told reporters he expected a 5-4 vote at Tuesday's meeting, where committee Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, cast one of the two "no" votes. Latvala has said he believes he has more than enough support for passage by the full Senate.
"We’ve still got a ways to go. But I feel very good about this," he said.