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Immigrant tuition proposal barely passes Senate Education Committee

The immigrant tuition bill narrowly won the support of the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday –- but significant challenges remain ahead.

The proposal, which would allow some undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates at Florida colleges and universities, received a favorable vote after Education Committee Chairman John Legg and bill sponsor Sen. Jack Latvala made a number of revisions.

Among the changes: the removal of language allowing undocumented students to be considered “residents for tuition purposes.” The bill now seeks to grant partial tuition waivers to undocumented students.

The change was important, Legg explained last week, because it will prevent undocumented students from receiving benefits other than tuition.

Another revision will lock in the current in-state residency percentage so undocumented students do not push out Florida residents.

Latvala acknowledged that the debate was still politically charged.

“This was a difficult decision for me to make to sponsor this bill,” Latvala said. “As a Republican who has an election this year, I have all of the same issues that other members of my party have. I have a lot of emails, a lot of Facebook comments from people who don’t agree with me.”

But he noted that the parents of undocumented students are Florida taxpayers.

“These parents pay the same sales taxes, the same gas taxes and many of the other taxes that we who have students who qualify for in-state tuition, pay” Latvala said. “It’s time to end that disparity. It’s time to provide that equity for all of our Florida high school graduates.”

The 5-4 vote was closer than Latvala expected.

Supporting the proposal: Democratic Sens. Dwight Bullard, of Miami; Bill Montford, of Tallahassee; and Maria Lorts Sachs, of Delray Beach. Republican Sens. John Legg, of Trinity, and David Simmons, of Altamonte Springs, also voted favorably.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, voted against the measure.

“This body just passed tuition for military veterans,” Brandes said. “These people have gone above and beyond, have sacrificed for our country. Now, we are debating giving the same reward and the same treatment to undocumented students who have not reached that same high bar.”

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Ft. Myers Republican who is running for U.S. Congress, did not speak up, but issued her reasons for voting against the measure in statement.

“I oppose forcing law-abiding Florida families to subsidize the tuition of those whose families’ first act in the U.S. was breaking our immigration laws,” Benacquisto wrote. “SB 1400 creates incentives for illegal immigration and I will vote no when it comes to a vote in the Senate Education Committee this morning.”

Two other "no" votes came from Sens. Bill Galvano and Sen. Kelli Stargel.

Galvano's vote presents a problem for the bill's supporters.

Galvano chairs the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee, where the bill is supposed to head next. After the meeting Monday, Galvano said he had not decided whether he would hear the bill in his committee.

Latvala says the bill should get special consideration because it is a priority for House Speaker Will Weatherford.

“I have to believe this will get all the way to the floor,” Latvala said. “And I’ve got the votes on the floor.”

The bill still differs from the House version, which offers undocumented students “residency for tuition purposes." The two bills also different on language about college tuition for all students. The Senate version would prevent universities and college from raising tuition above the amount set by the Florida Legislature. The House version seeks to cap the "tuition differential" at 6 percent. 

The bill will be heard on the House floor on Wednesday.