TALLAHASSEE | With Hispanic voters likely to play a key role in the 2014 elections, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill Monday allowing some students who are in the country illegally to pay in-state tuition rates at Florida’s public colleges and universities.
The new law offers in-state college tuition rates to undocumented students who had attended a Florida school for at least three years before graduation. The current in-state rate is one-quarter of what out-of-state students and those in the country illegally pay.
The measure also restricts the ability of Florida universities to raise tuition above the rate set each year by legislators. It repeals a law that allowed universities to raise tuition up to 15 percent a year. Instead it allows two schools — the University of Florida and Florida State University — to raise tuition up to 6 percent without approval by the Florida Legislature.
“Signing this historic legislation today will keep tuition low, and allow all students who grew up in Florida to have the same access to affordable higher education,” Scott said in a statement. “With this legislation, higher education became more affordable and more accessible to all Floridians.”
The prior law was a recession-era measure adopted by the Legislature during then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, now seeking his old job as a Democrat challenging Scott’s re-election bid.
Scott quickly made it clear he would use the new law — and the old one — as campaign fodder.
At the first stop on his “College Affordability Tour,” Scott told an audience in Southwest Florida Monday, “I know what it’s like to work your way through school, but for many kids today, the rising cost of college tuition is making it hard to afford college. That’s why it was so important to reverse Charlie Crist’s 15 percent tuition hike and give every student who grows up in Florida the chance to pursue an affordable college education.”
When he campaigned as governor four years ago, Scott vowed to push tougher anti-immigration measures. He also voiced opposition to offering the in-state tuition rate to students living in the country illegally.
But the Republican governor changed his stance during a year when Hispanic voters may prove to be crucial during a tough re-election fight.
Democrats pounced on the timing.
“This time last year, he vetoed the rights for Dreamers to get a driver’s license so they could actually go to a community college or a university, go to a job so that they could get ahead and suddenly, deathbed conversion, he’s woken up and decided that, well, maybe we ought to allow for in-state tuition for these Dreamers anyway,” Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant said.
Crist’s campaign begrudgingly welcomed the signing without noting that Crist has also reversed his position on in-state tuition for undocumented students after opposing it in the past.
“While this is a good day for the children of immigrants, I’m sure Floridians are happy there is an election coming up, otherwise Rick Scott would have continued his cuts to education and his assault on Bright Futures scholarships,” said Kevin Cate, a spokesman for Crist.
The in-state college tuition bill had been considered several times before over the last decade and had support from Republicans such as then-Gov. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio when he was in the Legislature. But it divided the Republicans and never passed.
This year, the proposal again drew sharp opposition from some Republicans. During floor debate, several GOP state senators questioned the potential cost — nearly $50 million when fully implemented — and said the state should not reward people who had broken the law by coming, or living, in the United States illegally.
“I know it feels good giving benefits away,” said Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach said in early May. “We are giving so many benefits to non-citizens .... Does it matter even being an American citizen anymore?”
The measure was ultimately passed due to the strong pushing by Scott and other top Republican leaders such as House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.