TALLAHASSEE -- Thousands of undocumented immigrants fighting for in-state college tuition rates might have had their hopes dashed Thursday when a top state lawmaker abruptly announced his committee would not hold a vote on the controversial bill.
The surprise move by Senate Budget Chairman Joe Negron — which caught Republicans in the House and governor’s office flatfooted — means the proposal (SB 1400) will be a long shot for passage during the final two weeks of the legislative session.
Negron, R-Stuart, gave a list of reasons for rejecting the bill, including the potential cost.
“If state colleges and universities can absorb the tens of millions of dollars in lost tuition, what effect will this policy have on limited financial aid funds for Florida students and parents?” Negron said in a statement. “I believe it is imprudent to commit Florida to a new statewide education law without first ascertaining the present and future fiscal impact.”
But Sen. Jack Latvala, the moderate Republican from Clearwater pushing the proposal, called Negron’s argument a “red herring.”
“Just say it like it is — you don’t like it,” Latvala said. “They’ve got money to do whatever they want to do. To say there’s not money for this is not true.”
Latvala pointed out that 20 senators had co-sponsored his bill, meaning there would be enough votes to pass it on the Senate floor. “It’s just unfortunate to have one senator stand in the way of a majority of the Senate,” he said.
If the bill were to die, it would be a significant loss for House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who has made it among his top priorities this year.
It would also be a setback for Gov. Rick Scott, who strongly supports a provision preventing colleges from hiking tuition above the rate set by the legislature, and needs the support of Hispanic voters in the November election.
Both men said they would continue to fight for the bill.
“There are a lot of folks praying for these kids,” Weatherford said in a statement. “Two weeks is a long time and I remain optimistic.”
Said Scott spokesman John Tupps: “This is an important bill, and there is still plenty of time left in the session.”
Still, Latvala, considered one of the Senate’s top strategists, said reviving the bill through a procedural maneuver would be difficult — especially because Senate President Don Gaetz opposes the measure. Latvala believes Negron was influenced by Gaetz.
Earlier in the day, Gaetz sent an email to his constituents in Northwest Florida noting that the proposed measure was “not limited to Hispanics.”
“It casts a blanket of approval over non-citizens who are in this country without proper legal status from anywhere in the world, including countries which are caldrons of terrorism and anti-American violence,” Gaetz said. “There is no improper or careless intent behind the legislation, but this bill goes much further than merely reaching out to Hispanic voters.”
Negron pitched a different argument: Colleges and universities already have the option to waive out-of-state tuition for select students.
Both Miami Dade College and Florida International University provide waivers to undocumented students who qualify for deferred action under a federal immigration program. But other universities, including the University of Florida, have said they believe state and federal law prohibit them from doing so.
“What [the opponents] are saying is not exactly true,” said Rep. Jeanette Núñez, the Miami Republican sponsoring the bill in the House and the chair of the House Higher Education and Workforce Subcommittee. “The other universities don’t have the flexibility that FIU does.”
Núñez’s bill (HB 851) passed out of the House last month by a 81-33 vote.
It is not clear how many undocumented immigrants would qualify for the tuition waivers. To be eligible, students would have to have attended at least three years of high school in Florida. If passed, the bill would save an undocumented immigrant student nearly $15,000 a year in tuition costs.
Nationwide, at least 17 states have provisions allowing for in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrant students.
The move by Negron is evidence of a growing rift between Weatherford and Gaetz, and could be a harbinger of battles to come. It could also be a negotiating technique, as the two chambers work to finalize the budget.
The maneuver drew praise from Gaetz’s son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, who took to Twitter on Thursday evening: “I’ve never been a bigger fan of Sen. Joe Negron than this very moment,” he wrote.
Many other lawmakers were caught off guard.
Latvala said he was “shocked.” He said he got a message from Negron at 4:24 p.m. Thursday, one minute before it was blasted to reporters.
The two are battling for the Senate presidency in 2016.
Sen. René García, the Hialeah Republican who chairs the Hispanic Caucus, was also puzzled by the move. He said Gaetz had promised him the bill would be heard on the floor.
“It’s a bump in the road,” García said. “I just hate for politics to be played on such an important issue.”
Herald/Times staff writers Marc Caputo and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.