Gaetz Says Senate Split On In-State Tuition For Immigrants

By  //  February 22, 2014

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ABOVE VIDEO: FAIR Federation for American Immigration Reform spokesman Ira Mehlman discusses in-state tuition for illegal aliens on CNN.

TALLAHASEE, FLORIDA — Senate President Don Gaetz on Friday left open the possibility that the Legislature could approve giving undocumented immigrants in-state tuition rates, a priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford.

Sen. Don Gaetz

Saying he personally opposes the idea and would vote against it, Gaetz told The News Service of Florida that the Senate, which has blocked the effort in previous years, is divided on the issue but did not say he would stand in the way of letting it move forward.

“Somebody who favors providing in-state tuition to the children of undocumented, or if you wish, illegals, did a vote count and came in and talked with me about it and they said there’s 18 votes to pass what the speaker is proposing. And that’s before the debate even starts. I think we’ll have a divided Senate in this issue,” Gaetz, R-Niceville, said Friday. “It’s an issue where people have to think about where they come from, what their values are, what they think is good public policy.”

Passage of the in-state tuition rates for undocumented students could help Republicans in an election year as they court Hispanic voters, considered crucial for a victory in Florida as the GOP tries to hold onto the governor’s office and gain ground in the state Legislature as well as Congress.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, is expected to roll out a proposal that would allow students who have attended at least three years of high school in Florida to pay cheaper, in-state tuition, similar to a measure that received unanimous support in a House subcommittee this week. Latvala said he plans to release the details of his plan Wednesday at a press conference in Clearwater.

Sen. Jack Latvala
Sen. Jack Latvala

Latvala, a veteran legislator and political consultant who is in a race for the Senate presidency after the 2016 elections, called the issue an important one not only to Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, but “to my Republican party” as a whole.

“I don’t know that it’s just important in an election year. I think it’s important for Republicans to be inclusive, not exclusive. We need to reach out to all folks. In this particular case, we’re talking about children who really weren’t responsible for the decision that their parents made as to where they lived and how they got there. I don’t think that penalizing them by making them pay more is a fair way to approach that,” Latvala told The News Service in a telephone interview on Friday.

Like other parents of children who are residents of the state and receive in-state tuition, Latvala said, undocumented immigrants “have been assisting our state” by paying sales taxes and gasoline taxes.

“The reason for the differential on tuition between in-state and out-of-state is to basically give a discount to people who’ve been Florida taxpayers,” he said.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who is seeking a second term against prospective Democratic candidate Charlie Crist, told the Hispanic Legislative Caucus earlier this month that he would “consider” the proposal, which is the caucus’s top priority.

Rick Scott
Rick Scott

Scott also this month signaled he was reaching out to Latino voters by tapping Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a Hispanic former state representative, as his lieutenant governor and running-mate.

Scott, who campaigned for governor four years ago on Arizona-style immigration reform, alienated Hispanics last year when he vetoed a measure that received nearly unanimous support from the Legislature. The measure would have helped young undocumented immigrants get driver’s licenses.

Gaetz’s Panhandle district includes several military bases and is home to many hard-line conservatives who favor a more-hawkish view of immigration. Many of the military veterans, including his neighbors, who live in the district came from other states or other countries or married spouses who were born in other countries, Gaetz said.

“I don’t develop my positions based on what I think is going to help or hurt politically statewide some candidate somewhere,” he said.”I represent the people of Northwest Florida. I’m the Senate president, but my most important job here is to be the senator from District 1 from Northwest Florida. And I have to go home to Northwest Florida in a couple of hours.”

Gaetz also said that the House proposal (HB 851) goes farther than some previous attempts, which limited in-state tuition to children who were born in the United State but whose parents lacked proof of being in the country legally.

But Latvala said that issue has already been resolved by the courts. A federal judge ruled in 2012 that Florida colleges and universities cannot charge out-of-state tuition to dependent children who are U.S. citizens but cannot establish the immigration status of their parents.

Latvala said he favors requiring students to attend three or four years of high school in Florida to establish that they did not move to the state just to get the cheaper tuition. Latvala already is the sponsor of a measure that would give in-state tuition to military veterans, a component included in the House bill that would also provide in-state tuition for students who attend at least three years of high school in Florida.

Over the past three years, Latvala led a coalition of moderate Republicans who joined with Democrats to block a series of high-profile bills. With the support of all 14 Democrats and the chamber’s three Hispanic senators, Latvala would just need three more Republicans to pass the measure.

“Nothing is ever easy. But I believe that if Sen. Gaetz would let this come to the floor that it would pass,” he said.