TALLAHASSEE — A bill that would grant in-state tuition to Florida students who entered or stayed in the country illegally has moved one step closer to passage in the state House of Representatives.
Lawmakers on Wednesday discussed but did not vote on the measure (HB 851).
The bill will come back to the floor for a vote today. Some version of the legislation has been offered every session for the past 11 years.
House members did adopt an amendment that brings the state university tuition differential -- the added cost a school can charge unilaterally without an approved tuition increase -- down from 15 percent to 6 percent.
The same amendment requires students to have attended “a secondary school in this state for four consecutive years immediately before high school graduation,” adding an additional year.
Democrats challenged that provision, saying it would penalize exceptional students who are able to finish high school in fewer than the traditional four years.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, defended the change after Wednesday night’s floor session, saying it makes the bill more palatable to members of both chambers.
“It says that someone has to spend their entire four years of high school in the state of Florida, at a Florida high school, before they can qualify for in-state tuition,” he said. “It’s a compromise ... we think it’s still a great bill.”
Weatherford supports the bill, though other lawmakers have inveighed against it.
Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, called the measure an “incentive for illegal immigration.” Benacquisto also is running for the congressional seat previously held by Trey Radel, who resigned after a drug charge.
Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, said the change weakened the bill.
“We’re walking back the original bill that would have been very, very beneficial to so many people who just want an education,” he said. “I think for a 12 month difference” -- referring to the extra year requirement -- “it’s pretty pathetic.”
Bill sponsor Jeanette Nuñez, R-Miami, disagreed. “I don’t think this weakens it,” she said. “For people to say this is pathetic, or that we’re not going to help a vast majority of students, is very sad.”
She also told fellow lawmakers that the proposal wouldn’t shut out state residents from getting into college or paying lower tuition.
“No Florida resident will be displaced by an undocumented immigrant,” she said. “Not one single, solitary individual legal resident will be displaced.”
The measure is fracturing the Republican caucuses in both chambers. A Senate version (SB 1400) backed by Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala squeaked by its first committee on a 5-4 vote and still has three committees to clear. That bill requires only three years.
Gov. Rick Scott has said he supports the measure in principle.
How to sound off
HB 851/SB 1400 would extend in-state tuition to students who are children of families who entered or remained in the United States illegally.
Sponsors are Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, R-Miami, (850) 717-5119, Jeanette.Nunez@myfloridahouse.gov, and Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, (850) 487-5020, email@example.com
To find and contact your own senator or representative, visit www.leg.state.fl.us. You’ll also find helpful tips at the Information Center there.