Gov. Rick Scott was just about to kick his Hispanic outreach campaign into gear when two top Republicans in the Florida Senate complicated the effort by unexpectedly blocking a priority bill that would give in-state tuition rates to some undocumented immigrants.
The abrupt procedural move by Senate President Don Gaetz and Senate budget chairman Joe Negron on Thursday caught Scott unaware along with fellow House Republicans and the party's most-respected former governor, Jeb Bush, who had privately asked some senators to hear the measure.
In a rare joint public statement, Bush on Friday joined Scott and another former Republican governor, Bob Martinez, to urge the Senate to take up the bill, which has majority support in the chamber.
One former governor stands to benefit the most from the Senate's failure to take up the measure: Charlie Crist, a Democrat running against Scott who wants to keep Hispanics, the state's fastest-growing demographic, voting against the GOP.
"It's just sad that Rick Scott's failed leadership means that some of our state's best and brightest immigrants may still be denied access to in-state tuition," Crist said in a statement.
"This is an issue where Republicans like Speaker Will Weatherford, working with Democrats, were trying to do the right thing," Crist said, blaming the governor for "holding Florida back from her full potential — putting a college education further out of reach for bright, innocent students."
Aside from the two Senate Republicans politically helping a Democratic campaign against a Republican, the situation has another irony: Crist was once a Republican who opposed the same bill that he now supports.
Scott, who also has reversed himself on the issue, made clear on Friday that he wants the Senate to pass the bill.
"Students who have spent their childhood here in Florida deserve to qualify for the same in-state tuition rate at universities their peers and classmates do," Scott said in the joint statement released with Bush and Martinez.
"We want our students to stay here in Florida when they go to college and when they choose a career, and that means we must make college more affordable for all those students who call Florida home," Scott said. "The Florida Senate should take immediate action to move SB 1400 forward."
Negron and Gaetz wouldn't comment on the governors' calls to take up the legislation. Negron said Thursday his opposition was rooted more in financial costs of the legislation; hours before, Gaetz fretted that it could subsidize education for those who hail from countries that are "caldrons of terrorism and anti-American violence."
The bill wouldn't give in-state tuition rates to all undocumented immigrants, just those who had been brought here as children — nicknamed "Dreamers" after a federal law seeking to legalize their status. Nationwide, at least 17 states have passed similar measures for undocumented immigrant students.
Also, to qualify for the cheaper tuition rates, the students would have to have already attended a Florida high school, where their education was already subsidized by taxpayers. Families of eligible students could save nearly $15,000 a year in tuition costs.
The measure isn't dead yet. But it's in trouble in the waning days of the 60-day lawmaking session that ends May 2.
The bill's sponsor, Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala, said the decision by Negron and Gaetz is a "slap in the face" to the sitting and former Republican governors.
Latvala downplayed talk that Negron's decision to block the bill was the result of a contest between the two as they jockey to see who becomes Senate president in two years.
Some Republicans hoped Gaetz's and Negron's opposition was a ruse to raise the profile of the issue and Scott, who could be viewed as a savior. But Latvala said that's not the case and he fretted that the bill was in danger, along with Republican hopes of winning more of the Hispanic vote.
"This is an issue that can be used against Republicans and for no good reason," Latvala said. "That's very unfortunate."
Republican political consultant Fred Piccolo was more concise: "Never underestimate the GOP's ability to take a conservative winnable moment and blow it."
A recent poll of 500 likely Hispanic Florida voters indicated that support for the measure could reach as high as 75 percent. The survey, conducted by the Associated Industries of Florida business group, however, had asked respondents if they supported tuition breaks for the children of illegal immigrants and not necessarily illegal immigrants themselves.
But support isn't as strong among likely voters in GOP-held Senate districts who were surveyed before session.
In that poll, paid for by the Republican Party of Florida, 65 percent supported and 30 percent opposed in-state tuition rates for illegal immigrants' children born in the United States. The numbers flipped for children of illegal immigrants born outside of the country: 30 percent supported it and 63 percent opposed.
Scott had planned next week to start running a Spanish-language TV commercial as part of his overall Hispanic outreach campaign. He's using Spanish language phrases more on the campaign trail, particularly in South Florida visits.
And the governor has also appointed the state's first Hispanic lieutenant governor, Lieutenant Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera.
Scott, however, has also drawn the ire of Hispanic leaders, many of whom are liberal leaning, for endorsing an Arizona-style immigration bill in 2010 and last year vetoing a bill that would have awarded temporary driver's licenses to Dreamers.
The angst over immigration in Florida reflects a dilemma faced nationwide by Republicans, who are watching their party's base become more white as minorities grow in size and influence.
House Speaker Weatherford declined comment, but Republicans say they're not happy with the Senate's decision to refuse to hear a bill that the House passed 81-33 on bipartisan lines.
Some grumbled that Gaetz resembled U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, who won't let an immigration reform bill go to the floor of Congress, even though it would likely pass.
Gaetz's office said in a brief statement that Bush and Scott never spoke to him about the bill and that he would follow "Senate rules," which make the bill's passage less likely after Negron, R-Stuart, announced he wouldn't hear it in his budget committee.
To get it out of Negron's committee and in front of the entire Senate, the bill would likely need a two-thirds vote in the chamber, which it doesn't have right now. A majority of Republican members, who control the Senate and are primarily from rural or overwhelmingly non-Hispanic white districts, don't support the measure.
Among them: Gaetz, who lives in the Panhandle town of Niceville.
"Though I am likely in the minority in the Legislature on this matter, I cannot support taxpayer subsidies in the form of tuition discounts for undocumented or illegal students," Gaetz wrote Thursday in a letter to constituents.
"I am told it is 'good politics' to support Sen. Latvala's bill, that it will help Republican candidates appeal to Hispanic voters in the 2014 and 2016 elections," he wrote. "Perhaps. It is certainly true that the Republican Party has lost much of the Hispanic support President Bush earned in 2000 and 2004 and that Gov. Jeb Bush still has in our state and across the nation."
Behind the scenes, Scott's running mate, Lopez-Cantera, has been meeting with senators to move the bill through the chamber.
Recently, Lopez-Cantera, a former Miami lawmaker, played a key role in persuading Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, to stop blocking the bill in his committee.
"It was important," Galvano said. "Carlos is a friend. And I defer to him on issues of policy and politics that particularly impact South Florida."
One of the Republican Party of Florida's major backers, Coral Gables billionaire Mike Fernandez, has been showering money on lawmakers, in part because this is a top priority of his.
Fernandez last year stroked a $50,000 personal check to Negron's political committee, and said he was surprised by the lawmaker's sudden decision Thursday to stall the legislation.
Fernandez said he didn't understand the opposition because those who would qualify for the tuition breaks have already received subsidized education in elementary, middle and high school.
"We're cutting their legs out from under them when they want to go to college" Fernandez said. "And we're turning them into Democrats when we don't need to be."