TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Senate paved the way Tuesday for final passage of a contentious bill allowing undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at Florida colleges and universities.
Using a procedural move, senators cleared the bill for a vote on the floor later this week. It is almost certain to pass because 21 of 40 Senate members have publicly expressed support. Another three have voted for the bill along its committee stops.
Tuesday's action, albeit understated, marked an important victory for supporters, who have fought for years to
persuade the Legislature to approve the measure.
"We're in the home stretch now," declared state Sen. Jack Latvala, the Clearwater Republican sponsoring the bill.
House Speaker Will Weatherford said he, too, was hopeful.
"We are on the verge of a very proud moment as a state," said Weatherford, a champion of the bill in the lower chamber.
The Senate maneuver that kept the proposal in play was so subtle it went practically unnoticed by the undocumented immigrant students watching from the Senate gallery.
Senate Bill 1400 had stalled after Senate Budget Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, refused to hear it in his committee. Latvala then tried adding the language to different Senate education proposals, but was unsuccessful.
With time running out Tuesday, powerful Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher motioned to waive the Senate rules and let the upper chamber take up the House version of the bill (House Bill 851).
Senate President Don Gaetz asked if there were any objections. There were none.
Gaetz approved the motion and moved on with the agenda.
Had five members of the Senate raised their hands, the motion would have required a two-thirds vote. That alone could have killed the bill's chances of becoming law.
Gaetz also could have quashed the motion. But despite his objections to the policy, he had said he would not stop it from reaching the floor.
"A majority of the members of the Senate wish to have this bill heard," Gaetz said Tuesday. "As presiding officer of the Senate, it is my duty to abide by the will of the Senate."
State Sen. Tom Lee, an opponent who likened the proposal to "pandering" to Hispanic voters, agreed the issue should be decided by the entire chamber.
"Despite people's feelings about the policy, there's a belief that the majority (the senators who support the proposal) had been abused by the minority (opponents), and that the injustice needed to be rectified with an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor," the Brandon Republican said.
Latvala expects the Senate to discuss the measure Wednesday on the floor before taking a final vote Thursday.
At some state universities, undocumented students pay four times the tuition rate for Florida residents.
Nationwide, at least 17 states have similar provisions in their laws allowing for in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrant students.
The language to be considered in the Senate already has the support of the House and Gov. Rick Scott. It includes a compromise over the so-called tuition differential that would allow the University of Florida and Florida State University to raise tuition up to 6 percent above the rate set by the Florida Legislature. All other universities would have to charge the state-mandated tuition rate.
Scott, who has made the bill a priority in recent weeks, expressed his support Tuesday at the National Guard Armory in Fort Lauderdale.
"We need to get tuition lower so all of our students -- low-income, middle-income, everybody -- can afford college and university," he said.
Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, meanwhile, kept the pressure up in Tallahassee.
"We're optimistic that it will get done by Friday," he said between conversations with lawmakers and lobbyists in the Capitol Rotunda.
Student activists also worked to tried to sustain the momentum. They donned caps and gowns, and held a mock graduation ceremony outside the Senate chambers.
For Veronica Perez, a Hillsborough Community College student born in Mexico but raised in Polk County, the fight is personal.
Perez had to put her education on hold from 2010 to 2012 because she could not afford the out-of-state tuition rate.
She aspires to be an engineer.
"Hopefully, this will be the week for undocumented students," she said.
--Herald/Times staff writers Marc Caputo and Amy Sherman contributed to this report.