The Florida Senate passed legislation Thursday that would allow the children of immigrants in the country illegally to pay in-state tuition rates to state colleges, clearing an election year hurdle for Gov. Rick Scott as he makes an aggressive pitch for Latino voters in his reelection race against former Gov. Charlie Crist.
The Republican-sponsored legislation, which had stalled in the Florida Senate last week after sailing through the House, will head to the governor's desk after expected final passage in the House on Friday. Though Scott has been excoriated by Democrats for taking a hard line on immigration issues in his 2010 primary campaign, he joined former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a potential 2016 GOP presidential contender, last month to push for passage of the in-state tuition bill when it looked like the bill might die due to opposition from some Republican Senate leaders.
Previously, Florida students who sought in-state tuition rates were required to provide documentation proving the residency of their parents or legal guardians, which was often impossible for the children of immigrants in the country illegally. The bill approved Thursday evening by a 26-13 Senate vote would allow students to pay in-state tuition regardless of immigration status, as long as they have attended a Florida high school for three years, could provide a transcript as evidence they graduated, and enroll in college within two years after graduating from high school.
The legislation's passage could boost Scott in his heated race with Crist, which has been within the margin of error in recent polls. From 2010 to 2012, the Latino share of the electorate in Florida rose from 12% to 17% and both campaigns are actively courting those voters.
Scott aired his first Spanish language ad last month, but has been under fire from Democrats for his 2010 stance supporting an Arizona-style law cracking down on immigrants in the country illegally. At the same time, he has had to navigate past critics from his own party who oppose measures benefiting those in the country illegally.
While Crist, a Republican when he served as governor but now a Democrat, has actively advocated the so-called Florida Dreamers bill in his gubernatorial campaign this year, Republicans have accused him of flip-flopping because he opposed similar legislation in 2006.
In pressing for passage of the in-state tuition bill, Scott has said that students who have spent their childhood in Florida "deserve to qualify for the same in-state tuition rate at universities as their peers and classmates do" and that he wants those students to stay in Florida when choosing a college and a career.
a brief remarks after the Senate action , Scott thanked lawmakers for their vote and said he looked forward to swiftly signing the bill after it is approved by the House on the final day of the legislative session.
Democrats have said Scott's support for the bill amounts to election-year pandering. But Crist only hinted at that line of attack in a statement Thursday in which he said the vote showed that "bipartisanship can allow our state to do great things."
"This legislation will create incredible opportunities for some of our best and brightest students," Crist
said. "If the people are gracious enough to give me a chance to serve as their governor, moments like this will be the norm, not just an election year exception."
Nineteen states, including California, allow the children of immigrants who entered the country illegally to pay
in-state tuition rates, according to a legislative analysis of the Florida bill, but requirements for qualifying vary by state. The in-state rates are usually many thousands of dollars cheaper than the alternative.