TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — An effort to allow qualified Florida students to pay in-state college tuition rates even if they are in the country illegally is deeply dividing the Republican-controlled Legislature.
A Senate committee on Tuesday barely approved the legislation (SB 1400) after four GOP state senators voted against the measure. The final vote was 5-4 and only survived the vote because three Democrats supported the bill.
"I have serious concerns about rewarding subsidized education to adults who are not legal residents of this state," said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and one of the no votes.
The tug-of-war over in-state tuition has become one of the main areas during this year's session where Republicans are at odds with one another. House Speaker Will Weatherford has come out strongly for the legislation, which would allow Florida high school graduates who spent three years in a state school to qualify for the lower tuition rate.
Weatherford has said it is wrong to "punish" children who were brought to this country illegally by their parents. The Florida House is expected to take up the bill later this week.
But some Republicans - including ones caught in a GOP primary - say they can't go along with a bill that would give a benefit to someone who is not a legal resident. They pointed out that legislators just this year agreed to grant in-state tuition rates to veterans who live in Florida.
Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, contended the bill would create "incentives for illegal immigration." Benacquisto, who is running in a heated GOP primary for the seat once held by disgraced Congressman Trey Radel, was one of the no votes in the Senate Education Committee.
The committee vote came after several students who said they were brought to the U.S. by their parents spoke about how they were having trouble advancing in college because of the tuition costs. Currently, those students pay out-of-state fees that can run as much as $17,000 more per year more than those charged Florida residents.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and the sponsor of the Senate bill, said that even with the in-state tuition break the students "are still going to be punished" because they do not qualify for federal financial aid or the state's scholarship programs.
Latvala said he wants to secure the borders so that people do not enter the country illegally. But he said it was "the right thing to do" to help students and families who have been living in the state for years.
"It's about giving the people who are residents of our state the value and benefit of the taxes they pay and their parents pay," Latvala said.
Gov. Rick Scott backs the Senate bill because it would place limits on how much universities could raise tuition rates. The bill would cap tuition rates at whatever rate the Legislature sets annually instead of giving universities the ability to raise the rates further.
Latvala said he remains optimistic that his bill will make it to the full state Senate for an up or down vote.