Gov. Rick Scott Signs Immigrant Tuition Bill

ABOVE VIDEO: Florida Governor Rick Scott speaks to local business leaders, state representatives and supporters during a speech last week at Dixie Crossroads Seafood Restaurant in Titusville, Florida. 

TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA — With Hispanic voters likely to play a key role in the 2014 elections, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill Monday allowing some undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at Florida’s public colleges and universities.

Scott promptly hit the campaign trail to tout the measure, which also rolls back the ability of state universities to increase tuition without the approval of the Legislature, as part of his efforts to hold down the cost of higher education. Democrats tried to tamp down enthusiasm by noting Scott’s evolving position on the idea of in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants who come to Florida as children.

Rick Scott
Rick Scott

In a sign of the dual nature of the legislation (HB 851), Scott’s camp sent out two statements — one an official press release with generic statements praising the bill, and another from his campaign using the opportunity to rip former Gov. Charlie Crist, his likely Democratic opponent in November.

“I know what it’s like to work your way through school, but for many kids today, the rising cost of college tuition is making it hard to afford college,” Scott said in the campaign statement. “That’s why it was so important to reverse Charlie Crist’s 15 percent tuition hike and give every student who grows up in Florida the chance to pursue an affordable college education.”

The governor’s statewide “College Affordability Tour” started Monday at a Beef ‘O’ Brady’s restaurant in Southwest Florida and was set to continue Tuesday at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables.

Under the legislation, students who attend secondary school in Florida for at least three years prior to graduation will qualify for in-state tuition, regardless of their immigration status.

The legislation dramatically alters the so-called “differential tuition” law, signed by Crist, which allowed 15 percent increases in tuition at state universities to be approved by the Board of Governors. Only the University of Florida and Florida State University now will qualify for the increases, which are capped at 6 percent a year, and only if they meet certain conditions.

That distinction and the fact that the existing differential tuition increases will remain in place have largely been paved over by Scott’s campaign. Even before he signed the bill Monday, a committee affiliated with Scott’s re-election campaign was touting the bill in television ads that ignore caveats.

“Scott repealed Crist’s tuition increase — wiped it out,” the ad says.

The bill was approved in the final days of this spring’s legislative session, after a procedural move allowed the Senate to vote on the measure over the fierce objections of some conservatives who opposed in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. The bill faced less opposition in the House, where Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, made it a priority.

It follows Scott’s push in recent years to hold down the cost of tuition, sometimes by applying pressure to the Board of Governors in a way that rankled university presidents.

On Monday, Democrats tried to use the signing of the bill to remind Latinos that Scott had opposed similar legislation in the past and that his rise to the GOP nomination in 2010 was fueled largely by his promises to crack down on illegal immigration. Scott also vetoed a measure last year that would have allowed some young undocumented Floridians, known as “Dreamers,” to receive driver’s licenses.

Allison Tant
Allison Tant

Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant told The News Service of Florida that Democrats were happy that one of the party’s longstanding priorities was approved.

“But this governor has just signed into law something that he has been adamantly opposed to,” Tant said. “This time last year, he vetoed the rights for Dreamers to get a driver’s license so they could actually go to a community college or a university, go to a job so that they could get ahead and suddenly, deathbed conversion, he’s woken up and decided that, well, maybe we ought to allow for in-state tuition for these Dreamers anyway.”

Crist’s campaign also begrudgingly welcomed the signing without noting that Crist has also reversed his position on in-state tuition for undocumented students after opposing it in the past.

“While this is a good day for the children of immigrants, I’m sure Floridians are happy there is an election coming up, otherwise Rick Scott would have continued his cuts to education and his assault on Bright Futures scholarships,” said Kevin Cate, a spokesman for Crist.