After a decade-long fight, Florida state lawmakers seem poised to pass a bill that would allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at the states public colleges and universities.
The bill, known as HB 851, passed its biggest hurdle Thursday when the Senate approved it with a 26-13 vote. It seeks to grant in-state tuition to undocumented students who attend a Florida high school for at least three years and graduate.
This is the bill that will stick with me the longest, Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater), the bills lead sponsor, said on the Senate floor moments before the vote. We are making a college education more affordable for our students in Florida. We are helping prepare our young people of all walks of life for the job force.
The House already passed an earlier version of the bill. But because the Senate amended the bill, it now heads back to the House for a final vote. House members have until Friday evening, when the legislative session ends, to vote on the legislation.
Supporters are confident itll pass, saying the bill faced its biggest test in the Senate.
Juan Escalante, a 25-year-old Dreamer, applauded the Senate vote on Thursday. He and other Dreamers many of them wearing graduation caps and gowns have been advocating for in-state tuition at the Capitol all week.
This sends a strong message to students that if youre willing to work hard, you can get make it and you can pay a fair rate, Escalante said, referring to HB 851.
Getting HB 851 to pass in the Senate was not easy. A few Senate Republicans attempted to block it, arguing that undocumented students are already able to attend college and that in-state tuition rates should be reserved for legal residents of Florida.
One attempt came from Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Joe Negron (R-Stuart). He refused to hear the Senate version of HB 851 in his committee, essentially blocking the Senate bill from moving forward.
But on Tuesday, Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher motioned to waive the Senate rules so that HB 851 could be considered on the Senate floor. Senate President Don Gaetz approved the motion and debate on the bill began on Wednesday.
If the House approves the bill on Friday and Republican Gov. Rick Scott signs it into law, Florida will become the 21st state to offer some kind of in-state tuition to undocumented students. Virginia was added to that list earlier this week when the states attorney general announced that undocumented students are eligible for in-state tuition.
Its likely that Scott will sign HB 851 into law given he has been one of the most vocal supporters of allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition.
Students who have spent their childhood here in Florida deserve to qualify for the same in-state tuition rate at universities their peers and classmates do, he stated in a letter to Senate leaders two weeks ago.
Scotts support for the in-state tuition bill comes as he runs for re-election. A new poll by Quinnipiac University shows he is trailing behind his Democratic challenger, former Gov. Charlie Crist.
Some see his support for the in-state tuition bill as political pandering to Latino voters, who make up 14 percent of the states electorate. They also note that the Republican governor pushed for Arizona-style crackdown on illegal immigration in 2010 and vetoed a bill that wouldve given drivers licenses to Dreamers last year.
Meanwhile, others welcome Scotts evolving stance on immigration and hope he will sign the in-state tuition bill into law if the House approves it on Friday.