TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott quietly signed legislation over the weekend that allows students who are undocumented immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition at Florida colleges and universities.
House Bill 851 was a priority of House Republicans, including Speaker Will Weatherford, who overcame opposition from Senate conservatives to achieve passage in the final days of the 2014 session. Yet Scott didn't provide an opportunity for them to take a victory lap, since he chose not to hold a formal bill signing, as he has for other priorities.
The governor has focused on the tuition-control portions of the legislation to contrast them with the policies of his expected opponent for re-election, former Gov. Charlie Crist. Scott will tour the state all week — he started in Fort Myers on Monday and has stops planned in Miami, Boca Raton, Orlando and Pensacola — discussing higher education and tuition and campaigning against Crist.
"We're going to talk about legislation I signed this weekend to stop Charlie Crist's 15 percent annual tuition increases," Scott said during a morning appearance on WINK-TV in Fort Myers.
Only after tweaking Crist did Scott reference immigrant students, widely known as "dreamers.''
"Students that grew up in our state are going to get the same in-state tuition as their peers, which is what's fair," he said.
The immigrant tuition bill passed the House 84-32 but was stalled in the Senate until Scott enlisted the help of two former Republican governors, Jeb Bush and Bob Martinez, both of whom called on the Senate to take action. "Dreamer" students, wearing orange mortarboards, were a frequent presence in the Capitol rotunda this spring as they rallied support for the measure.
Scott, who initially opposed in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, was careful to express his support for the bill during the session only because it also freezes tuition at current rates. Crafty legislators tied the tuition freeze to the more controversial "dreamer" provision.
Republican Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater maneuvered the legislation to a successful floor vote, and while Senate President Don Gaetz opposed the bill, he did not stop it from being considered.
Latvala said he doesn't fault Scott for signing the bill privately and then hitting the campaign trail.
"I think that they just made a conscious decision that they don't really want to do bill signings and mix them up with campaign things," Latvala said.
Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, expressed similar sentiments.
"I feel like the celebration will be when these students go up to sign up for school and can afford it," he said. "I don't need anyone to pat me on the back."
Democrats and the Legislature's Hispanic caucus had long supported allowing in-state tuition for "dreamers," but it wasn't until House Republicans signed on and agreed to tie in the broader tuition issues that the legislation gained traction. At least 17 other states already have similar laws on the books for undocumented immigrants.
Scott's support of the bill drew criticism from both the right and the left. Senate Democratic leader Chris Smith issued a statement calling Scott's position a "remarkable turn-around" with dubious timing.
"While it's unfortunate that it took his bid for re-election to finally come around, on behalf of working families and children seeking a better future, we welcome his decision to join us," said Smith of Fort Lauderdale.
The group Floridians for Immigration Enforcement had urged Scott to veto the measure by reminding him of his own statements on immigration. Legislative director Jack Oliver said he thinks Scott purposely misled voters in 2010 when he indicated support for Arizona-style reforms that never came to fruition.
Now that HB 851 is law, only the University of Florida and Florida State University have the flexibility to impose tuition increases outside the Legislature's approval. And the bill lowers the maximum increase from 15 percent to 6 percent, based on each school's ability to meet certain requirements.
Scott's campaign launched a television ad last week criticizing Crist for signing legislation that allowed colleges to raise tuition. The ad did not mention that the GOP-controlled Legislature, including Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, pushed the tuition hike and got Crist to go along with it.
News of Florida's tuition bill being signed into law came on the same day President Barack Obama announced he was taking additional actions to make student loans more affordable.
Staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Contact Tia Mitchell at (850) 224-7263 or [email protected]