Only Gov. Rick Scott can salvage the dreams of thousands of undocumented high school students whose only hope to afford college is being allowed to pay in-state tuition. Only the governor has the stature and political leverage to force the Senate to take up this issue of fundamental fairness that the House already has approved. Only the governor can dictate the outcome of legislation that would help him politically and stop penalizing students who already are succeeding in our local schools and communities.
Scott supports the Senate bill, SB 1400, that would enable illegal immigrants who have graduated from Florida high schools to pay in-state tuition. He sent out a news release Friday that he is joined in support by former Republican Govs. Bob Martinez and Jeb Bush. (He didn't mention former Gov. Charlie Crist, the Republican-turned-Democrat and candidate for governor who also supports in-state tuition for these students.) But it is going to take more from Scott than news releases to get this legislation back on track.
Two unenlightened Republicans, Senate President Don Gaetz of Niceville and Budget Committee Chairman Joe Negron of Stuart, stand in the way. Gaetz opposes the bill but has said he would not block it if a majority of senators supported it. Yet with at least tacit approval from Gaetz, Negron refuses to schedule the bill to be heard in the last committee meeting Tuesday. Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, probably has 25 votes for the bill in the 40-member Senate. This is a fight between two factions of the Republican Party, and some 175,000 undocumented high school students could be collateral damage.
Negron makes two fallacious arguments. He suggests allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition will hurt Floridians by costing universities tens of millions in higher out-of-state tuition. But it's unclear how many undocumented students would attend college. The House bill also requires that their university slots would come from those set aside for out-of-state students, not seats that would be taken by Floridians. Negron also contends colleges and universities can choose now to charge undocumented immigrants in-state tuition. Miami Dade College and Florida International University are doing it, but the University of Florida and other universities say that is illegal.
Only Scott has the political leverage to make Gaetz and Negron see the light. But it will take more personal attention to legislative maneuvering than the governor previously has shown. Scott supported accepting billions in Medicaid expansion money last year, then failed to lift a finger when the House refused to act. Now he faces the same situation with the Senate on an issue that could help his re-election bid and Republicans in general with Hispanic voters. Is this governor feckless or merely impotent when it comes to working the levers of his office and dealing with the Legislature?
Enabling undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition is a smart investment. Taxpayers already have underwritten their public education and helping them afford college would enable them to get better jobs and contribute more to their adopted home. The Senate has the votes to pass this legislation, and two stubborn senators playing their own political games should not be allowed to kill it. The governor has an opportunity to provide real leadership and demand action, or he can explain on the campaign trail why he is so ineffective at persuading fellow Republicans in the Legislature to vote for smart public policy that he supports.