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Tuesday, Jul 22, 2014
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Dockery: A fascinating issue to watch: the immigrant tuition bill

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Although a legislative issue usually falls predictably along party lines, with the Florida House considered the more conservative chamber and the Senate considered more moderate, the immigrant tuition bill shatters the preconceptions from the start.

What is the immigrant tuition bill? It’s a 14-page Senate bill that makes changes to several facets of postsecondary student tuition. But the part that would allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition garners the most attention.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, the sweetheart of ultra-conservative groups such as CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference) and the Heritage Foundation, has surprisingly made this bill one of his top priorities. The House Republican Caucus traditionally shows little independence or divergence from the speaker’s priorities, thus ensuring its passage in the Republican-dominated House.

On the other side of the Capitol, Senate President Don Gaetz has already declared his opposition to giving in-state tuition rates to undocumented students but has said — probably out of deference to his House counterpart — that he will let the proposal be heard in the Senate.

So where is the governor in this tiebreaker? The answer is somewhat nuanced. In his State of the State address kicking off the legislative session, Gov. Rick Scott offered up a limited and timid agenda. One of the governor’s few legislative goals was to undo past legislative action that allowed universities to increase tuition by 15 percent.

Enter political veteran state Sen. Jack Latvala, who agreed to sponsor the immigrant tuition bill in the Senate, knowing that without President Gaetz’s blessing it would be an uphill battle.

The first bad sign? The bill was referred to four committees. Before the bill can make it to the floor for a final vote, the sponsor will need to get it heard in each of the four committees and get a favorable vote in each committee. This is challenging and somewhat problematic for a couple of reasons, including a race against time and the makeup of the committees.

To bring the governor on board, Latvala included the governor’s desire to rescind the current 15 percent tuition differential, effectively preventing universities and colleges from raising tuition above the amount set by the Florida Legislature. He also removed the language allowing undocumented students to be considered “residents for tuition purposes” and instead granted them partial tuition waivers. This was done at the request of other senators to prevent these students from receiving other benefits such as financial aid. Despite the concessions, the bill squeaked by its first Senate committee on a 5-4 vote with all three Democrats and two Republicans supporting it. The four dissenting votes, all Republicans, included Lizbeth Benacquisto, who is running in a hotly contested Republican primary for the congressional seat vacated by Trey Radel.

In an effort to show her conservative credentials, Benacquisto issued a written statement stating, “I oppose forcing law-abiding Florida families to subsidize the tuition of those whose families’ first act in the U.S. was breaking our immigration laws.”

Whoa! What happened to personal responsibility? Should a bright young student who has lived in Florida for 16 of his 18 years be held responsible for what his parents did when he was a toddler?

Let’s be clear on what this provision does and does not do. It would allow an undocumented student who is admitted to a Florida college or university to pay in-state tuition instead of out-of-state tuition if they show they attended a secondary school for three consecutive years immediately before graduating from a Florida high school and enrolled in a college or university within 24 months of graduating.

It does not grant these students any preferential admission status, or allow them state financial aid, and it does not negatively affect admission for other Florida students.

Keep in mind that these kids went through our public schools. They and their parents pay taxes and have been contributing members of our communities. There are 15 other states that already extend in-state tuition rates to students who are undocumented, including four — Texas, California, New Mexico and Washington — that allow these students to receive state financial aid.

The House bill is already on the House floor awaiting its final vote and differs from the Senate version in two significant ways. The House version offers undocumented students residency for tuition purposes and caps the tuition differential at 6 percent.

If Latvala can get the bill to the Senate floor, I predict it will pass with at least 24 votes. His challenge is getting it heard and voted favorably out of the next three committees. Kudos to him for taking it on.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at PBDockery@gmail.com.

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