TALLAHASSEE — A procedural maneuver could save a bill seeking to grant in-state college tuition rates to undocumented immigrants.
Last week, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, announced that his committee would not hear the proposal, weakening its chances of becoming law.
But on Monday, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said he will try adding the language to four other bills that come before the panel today. If Latvala is successful, the immigrant tuition provision would stay alive.
He probably has the votes.
"Unless some of the (Republicans who supported the bill in previous hearings) get their chains pulled by leadership, we should be fine," he said.
As Latvala fine-tuned his strategy Monday, a dozen college students kept the pressure on Senate leaders. They held a news conference on the steps of the Senate Office Building and vowed to sit outside Senate President Don Gaetz's office until the president met with them.
A meeting took place shortly after their arrival.
"All we are asking is that the Florida Legislature let the bill be heard," said Chrisley Carpio, 22, a University of Florida student from Miramar.
The immigrant tuition bill is one of the most high-profile proposals of the session. It would allow state colleges and universities to waive out-of-state fees for undocumented immigrants who attended Florida high schools.
Gov. Rick Scott, who needs the support of Hispanic voters in the November election, considers the proposal a priority.
"It's very important that the Senate pass Senate Bill 1400," Scott told reporters Monday in Jacksonville, adding that the bill would give undocumented students "the same chance that every other student has."
The House version (HB 851) passed out of the lower chamber by an 81-33 vote last month, thanks partly to the support of House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.
But Latvala's bill has hit several bumps.
In all three committee stops, the bill faced strong opposition from conservative Republicans. Gaetz blasted the proposal in an email to his constituents Thursday, saying it would benefit immigrants from "anywhere in the world, including countries which are caldrons of terrorism and anti-American violence." Hours later, Negron announced the bill would not be heard by the Senate budget committee.
Latvala's procedural maneuver could give the bill new life.
He has proposed adding the in-state tuition language to Senate Bills 950, 1292, 1394 and 1666, all of which involve education.
Latvala probably will find support for his amendments on the 19-member Senate Appropriations Committee.
Seven members of the panel have already voted for the tuition measure in previous committee hearings. Another four are co-sponsors of Latvala's original proposal.
Latvala was concerned that he might lose some supporters now that the Senate leadership has come out against the bill. But Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, said he will continue to support the proposal.
"At the end of the day, I think it is good policy for Florida," he said.
Even if Latvala is successful, Gaetz could halt the provision with yet another procedural move.
Under Senate rules, if a bill undergoes significant changes in the appropriations committee, the president can send it back for additional committee hearings. That would be a near fatal blow, since committees cannot meet after today.
Gaetz said it was too early to say whether he would send an amended bill back to committees. He pointed out that 40 other bills have suffered a similar fate.
But Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, who strongly supports in-state tuition for undocumented students, noted that he would advise the president on the decision.
"We would look at that together," he said.
The student activists — who came from the University of Florida, the University of South Florida and Florida State University — were hopeful.
"This is a common sense (bill)," FSU student Andrew Arachikavitz said. "This is really only being blocked by a handful of people."
Latvala, too, was optimistic.
"I think I can do this in some form," he said.
Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet, Marc Caputo and Tia Mitchell contributed to this report. Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.