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  1. Florida Politics

Bousquet: A solution for Scott's Hispanic problem?

Published Apr. 1, 2014

It's hard to think of a worse week than the one Gov. Rick Scott just survived, but he can turn things around if he wants to.

First, though, a recap of what went wrong.

Scott's campaign finance co-chairman, health care exec Mike Fernandez of Coral Gables, quit in protest of the way the campaign is going. Then, in three blistering emails, the Cuban-American business leader called into question Scott's commitment to Hispanic voters and accused a campaign aide of crudely imitating a Mexican accent.

The campaign says the slur never happened, but Scott nearly apologized for it on Friday. "My heart goes out to anyone involved," he said in Tampa.

Scott has appointed Florida's first Hispanic lieutenant governor, Carlos Lopez-Cantera. But the ethnic overtones in Fernandez's critique ought to be a wakeup call that Scott needs to do something to reassure Hispanics before it's too late and it comes off as election-year vote-pandering.

Anyone who's paying close attention to the legislative session knows exactly what Scott should do, even though it would rile some conservatives.

Rather than waiting for the Legislature to act, he should lead the charge to guarantee passage of a law offering in-state tuition rates to children of undocumented immigrants, known as Dreamers. The bill, HB 851, passed the House 81-33, but it's not clear whether the Senate will take it up, and a strong push from Scott would change the dynamics.

In his ever-cautious manner, Scott has tiptoed his way toward supporting the idea, as long as lawmakers also get rid of a 15 percent tuition differential, an additional amount universities can impose without legislative approval.

Scott backs a Senate bill that would abolish tuition differentials and offer in-state tuition rates for Dreamers. The House bill preserves a 6 percent differential, backed by House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

Scott could visit Florida International University in Miami and the University of South Florida in Tampa, two of the state's most diverse universities, and make a firm declaration that … well, listen to Weatherford, who calls it a moral and economic issue and whose conservative credentials are unquestioned.

"I would hope that the whole Legislature would not punish these kids for mistakes their parents made," Weatherford said. "The kids didn't make the mistake. They are living in this country, and they're going to live in this country for the foreseeable future."

If Scott, as is sometimes suggested, relies on polls to shape his policy positions, he might want to consider polling data that Associated Industries of Florida has shared with some legislators. AIF paid for a survey of 1,000 likely general election voters last month (the margin of error was 3.9 percentage points).

Those polled were asked whether they agreed that "children of illegal immigrants who live in Florida and graduate from a Florida high school should be eligible for in-state tuition at a Florida state college or university," and 63 percent said yes and 29 percent said no.

By championing in-state tuition for Dream kids, Scott might just become their new hero (not to mention Weatherford's).

And who knows? People might even stop talking about Mike Fernandez's emails.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

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