TALLAHASSEE — In what Republicans hailed as a historic moment, the Florida House on Thursday voted 81-33 to allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates at Florida colleges and universities.
But challenges remain ahead.
The Senate version of the proposal (SB 1400) was nearly defeated in its first committee stop. It must now be heard by the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee.
The chair of that subcommittee, Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, opposes the measure, and said he hasn't yet decided whether to take up the bill. Without a hearing, its chances of becoming law will drop considerably.
There's another question mark: Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
Scott has said he supports the Senate bill, which also prohibits universities from raising tuition above the rate set by the Legislature.
The House bill allows universities to hike tuition 6 percent above that rate. That's less than the 15 percent that's currently allowed, but still not enough for Scott or the Senate.
Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, the Miami Republican sponsoring the bill in the House, says she is confident the three sides will reach a compromise.
"There's still a lot of time left in the session," she said.
Tuition for undocumented students became one of the central issues of the 2014 session when House Speaker Will Weatherford made it one of his priorities.
The debate had been percolating in legislatures across the country — and on college campuses across Florida.
Florida International University and Miami Dade College already offer partial tuition waivers to undocumented students who request a temporary stay of deportation from the federal government.
Students at the University of South Florida, the University of Florida and Florida State University are demanding similar policies at their schools.
On Thursday, about two dozen Florida college students trekked to Tallahassee to advocate for the proposal.
"I'm asking the senators and representatives to support this issue, to let us further our education," said Mariana Castro, a University of Florida student who was born in Peru and was brought to the United States illegally as a child. "We aren't asking for free tuition. We want an equal opportunity."
The vote Thursday came on the heels of significant revisions to the bill.
Among other things, the amendment required undocumented students to be considered "out-of-state students," so they would not displace Florida residents seeking admission. (State colleges and universities must reserve a certain percentage of slots for in-state students).
Nuñez said the changes were needed to win support in the Senate.
But some of the new language infuriated Democrats, including a provision requiring undocumented students to complete four consecutive years of secondary school in Florida in order to qualify for the cheaper rates.
Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, said the amendment weakened the bill, which originally required only three years.
"We're walking back from the original bill that was filed," he said.
Democrats made that point again on Thursday. But by and large, they supported the bill.
"These are students who grew up in Florida," said Rep. José Javier Rodríguez, D-Miami. "They've attended the same schools as other Floridians. They've sat for the same exams. They've gotten the same admissions letters. But when it comes time to pay tuition, they have to pay as much as four times as their colleagues. For a lot of them, that simply closes the door."
Republicans gave their support, too — even some conservative Republicans.
"We are the land of opportunity," said Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City. "One thing we know, we're not going to deport them. They are here. We need to make sure they have the best opportunities we can possibly provide them."
Said Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights: "This bill has probably given me more angst than any other bill in my six years here. But I cannot say to anyone who lands here in Florida that they do not deserve an education."
Only one of the 31 opponents spoke up during debate, but he did not address tuition for undocumented students.
"We are attacking the wrong problem," said Rep. Mike Hill, R-Pensacola Beach. "We need to make sure college is more affordable for everyone in Florida."
The spotlight now turns to the upper chamber.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, is hopeful the bill will get a vote on the Senate floor because it is a priority for the House speaker.
"I have to believe this will get all the way to the floor," Latvala said. "And I've got the votes (to pass the bill) on the floor."