TALLAHASSEE — Florida Gov. Rick Scott supports a Senate proposal allowing some undocumented immigrants to pay in-state college tuition rates, his office confirmed Wednesday.
The governor is on board with the measure partly because it addresses one of his top legislative priorities: preventing state universities from raising tuition rates above those set by the Florida Legislature.
"I want tuition to be lower," Scott said. "It's unbelievable how much tuition has gone up."
The House version of the immigrant tuition bill, sponsored by state Rep. Jeanette Nuñez of Miami, does not currently restrict the ability of colleges and universities to set tuition rates. But lawmakers will consider adding a similar provision.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, who has made immigrant tuition one of his top priorities this year, said he was encouraged by Scott's support.
"The governor has shown great compassion by working to prevent children from being punished for the mistakes of their parents," said Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. "I appreciate his support and look forward to working with him."
Florida lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully to extend in-state tuition rates to undocumented students for more than a decade.
The conversation gained momentum this year, thanks largely to Weatherford's support.
There has also been a groundswell of support on college and university campuses. Both Florida International University and Miami Dade College already grant partial tuition waivers to students who participate in President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. And students at the University of Florida, the University of South Florida and Florida State University are pressing their trustees to enact similar policies.
Observers had been watching to see where Scott would fall on the issue.
He has taken a hard-line position on immigration issues in the past. Last year, Scott vetoed a bill passed with near unanimous support in the House and Senate that would have helped some children of undocumented immigrants to obtain temporary driver's licenses.
Now that Scott is running for re-election against former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, he finds himself in a difficult position.
On one hand, Scott must rally his conservative base. But he is also working hard to court Hispanic communities.
Scott's support of the in-state tuition bill was first reported by the Associated Press.
"It's a smart political move," said pollster and Florida International University professor Dario Moreno. "Rick Scott doesn't need to shore up the base. The base isn't going to vote for Charlie Crist. What he needs to do is expand his numbers with Hispanics, especially non-Cuban Hispanics."
Plus, the precedent had already been set.
Other Republican governors have signed similar measures, including Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.
Florida Democratic Party Chair Allison Tant called the move "clumsy pandering."
"For three years, Rick Scott hasn't been treating young undocumented immigrants like people — now, he's treating them like political pawns," Tant said.
Even with Scott's support, the immigrant tuition bill isn't guaranteed to become law.
The Senate version, SB 1400, has yet to be scheduled for a hearing. The proposal must win support of four committees before it receives a floor vote.
Senate President Don Gaetz has said he opposes the measure because other people who live in Florida, like the children of military personnel, are not offered in-state tuition rates.
But Gaetz said the issue would "very likely (be) debated in the Senate."
The House version, HB 851, has its final committee hearing on Thursday.
The proposal is expected to pass with bipartisan support, and receive a full vote in the coming weeks.
Still, a Broward-based organization called Floridians for Immigration Enforcement is urging its members to give lawmakers a different perspective.
"State you oppose HB 851 because it provides more benefits for illegal aliens while immigration laws are still so blatantly not enforced," group leaders urged in a Wednesday email.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.