TALLAHASSEE -- Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who urged a crackdown on immigration four years ago, is throwing his support behind a bill that would allow qualified Florida students to pay in-state college tuition rates even if they are in the country illegally.
But Scott is supporting the idea as long as it is combined with his own proposal to place limits on how much state universities can raise tuition each year.
The Republican governor said Wednesday that he supports a bill sponsored by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, because it removes a provision that currently allows state universities to raise tuition above the amount set annually by the state Legislature.
"I'm appreciative of the fact that he's concerned about the debt that our students are ending up with and that tuition has been growing too fast," Scott said. "I like his bill because he's doing the right thing."
Scott's decision to back the legislation is a sharp turn from 2010, when as a candidate for governor he promised to pass tougher immigration laws. He made comments blaming immi
grants for costing the state "countless billions" and taking jobs from U.S. residents. Just last year Scott vetoed a bill would have allowed some young immigrants who are living in the United States illegally to apply for a temporary driver's license.
Some Democrats blasted Scott's decision to back in-state tuition rates as a pandering to Hispanic voters as he mounts a tough re-election campaign.
"For three years, Rick Scott hasn't been treating young undocumented immigrants like people -- now, he's treating them like political pawns," said Florida Democratic Party Chair Allison Tant in a written statement.
But some legislators who have been pushing to get the state to offer in-state tuition rates to Florida students despite their immigration status praised Scott's change.
"I'm happy to see the governor really draw the right conclusion, and do the right thing as it pertains to those students," said Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami.
Scott's decision to back the proposal, however, doesn't guarantee it will pass.
That's because there's an ongoing tug-of-war over who should have the power to set tuition rates at Florida's 11 state universities, which include schools such as University of Florida, Florida State University, University of Central Florida and Florida International University.
Scott for the last two years has opposed tuition hikes, saying they were putting the price of college out of reach for students. Scott vetoed a tuition hike included in the state budget passed last year by the Legislature.
But now the governor wants to go further. In his State of the State speech, Scott called for removing the universities' ability to raise tuition above the rate set annually by legislators. Right now, state universities can raise tuition by as much as 15 percent even if the Legislature keeps the rates flat. The power was granted at a time when the state was cutting money to universities because of the souring economy.
Legislative leaders have responded by offering to limit tuition hikes to no more than 6 percent. House Speaker Will Weatherford said this week that universities should retain some ability to raise tuition without legislative approval.
"I think it allows universities some flexibility since we don't know what the future budgets will look like," Weatherford said.
University of Florida President Bernie Machen agrees with Weatherford. Machen said the rate charged by UF remains a "bargain."
"It's hard to understand how we're not a great buy," Machen said.
The debate over in-state tuition for certain students who entered the country illegally has been a perennial one in Tallahassee. Similar bills passed the House and Senate but never in the same year. Weatherford has come out for granting in-state tuition to Florida high school graduates who have entered the country illegally, but Senate President Don Gaetz has said he is opposed to the proposal.
At least 15 other states have passed such laws, with another seven considering them this year. The trend reflects immigrant advocates' increasing focus on state legislatures as Congress fails to make any headway on national immigration reform. It also highlights lawmakers' growing recognition of the influence of Latino voters.
Latvala's bill (SB 1400) as well as a similar House bill (HB 851) would cover all Florida youth who attended at least three years of high school in the state and apply for college within two years of graduation -- regardless of their immigration status. It also would provide in-state tuition to veterans and would require students to be U.S. citizens to receive state financial aid.
Currently, those students pay out-of-state fees that can run as much as $17,000 more per year more than those charged Florida residents.