As Republicans look to improve their standing with Latinos, some GOP strategists had pointed to a bright spot in the Florida Legislature, where their members were pushing a bill granting in-state college tuition to some students who are in the country illegally.
The measure had looked like it would die in a Senate committee as Florida’s legislative session wrapped up this week, despite vocal support from former Gov. Jeb Bush, a potential 2016 presidential contender. But it got a once-unlikely push from Republican Florida Gov. Rick Scott, whose 2010 campaign was marked by a hard line on immigration issues — most notably his support for an Arizona-style law allowing police to check whether people they arrested were in the country legally.
Scott later dropped the issue and now, locked in margin-of-error reelection race against former Gov. Charlie Crist, the Republican-turned-Democrat, Scott is making an aggressive bid for Latino support.
The measure now before the Legislature would cover immigrants brought to America illegally as children who had studied at Florida high schools. Currently, many of those students could not qualify for in-state tuition because their parents could not meet the state law's requirement that they prove a Florida residency. A two-thirds vote in the Senate on Tuesday put the bill onto the calendar for Wednesday. A final Senate vote of a House-passed measure is expected Thursday.
State Sen. Jack Latvala, who sponsored the Senate version, said he expects to have the backing of as many as 25 members of the 40-member Senate.
For the Republican Party, Latvala said in a telephone interview, “It’s important that we be inclusive, as opposed to being exclusive — instead of pushing people away; we need to be pulling people in.” He described the bill as “an equity issue.... To have to pay three or four times the in-state rate just because your parents don’t happen to be citizens, I thought was wrong.”
In the final drive to get a vote, Latvala said Scott “made a lot of phone calls and pushed a lot of people on this."
Scott’s positioning on the in-state tuition measure is already a major issue in the his reelection campaign.
On Tuesday, Crist’s spokesman, Kevin Cate, described Scott as a last-minute convert on the legislation.
“He’s there to take credit for the work of others, and is disingenuous and a fraud,” Cate said. “The fact that it took Jeb Bush and [Republican House Speaker] Will Weatherford to make it happen speaks volumes of the tea party governor that ran on an Arizona immigration bill in 2010.”
On his campaign website, Crist has called for immediately passing the in-state tuition legislation, saying that “it simply isn’t fair to punish the children of undocumented parents.” Crist has also criticized Scott for vetoing a bill last year that would have permitted some young Floridians in the country illegally to get temporary driver's licenses, even though the bill had broad support in the Legislature.
The Republican Party of Florida, in turn, noted that in 2006 Crist was quoted in the Miami Herald as saying Florida lawmakers had done the right thing by rejecting a measure granting in-state tuition to such children.
Asked about Scott’s role in the revival of the in-state tuition bill, his spokesman John Tupps emailed a one-sentence statement: “Our office has been working with the Legislature to make college more affordable for all Floridians.”
Scott is under intense pressure this year from multiple directions: Even as many Republicans object to assisting immigrants in the country illegally, the business community has been supportive of the bill, said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa. In addition, the state's burgeoning Latino population has increasingly tilted toward the Democrats in part because of the Republican position on such immigrants.
“The realities of what Florida is like and is going to continue to be like — the demographics — and the importance of the issue in tourism and agriculture, two of Florida’s key sectors, have really pushed [Scott] in this direction,” MacManus said. She noted that the Latino share of the electorate rose from 12% in 2010 to 17% in 2012, according to exit polls.
Republican operatives “are looking at the demographics like everybody else,” she said.