The House overwhelmingly approved a measure extending in-state tuition rates to some undocumented students Thursday, sending the charged legislation to the Senate, where it faces a less certain fate.
The House passed the bill (HB 851), a top priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford, with an 81-33 vote Thursday evening. Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, lost nearly half his caucus on the vote and had to rely on Democrats to help push it through. The measure allows undocumented immigrants to pay cheaper, in-state tuition rates if they attend Florida middle and high schools for at least four straight years before going to college.
Weatherford played down the fact that 33 of the 74 Republicans who voted on the bill opposed it.
"If you'd have told me six months ago that over 80 members of the Florida House would vote for a bill to give in-state tuition for the children of undocumented immigrants, I would not have believed you…I think it was a historic victory for the children of this state that are waiting for that opportunity for that chance to have upward mobility," he told reporters.
Debate over the measure was restrained, with only one speaker openly opposing the bill. Rep. Mike Hill, R-Pensacola Beach, said the issue was a symptom of the larger problem of higher education being too expensive.
"We're attacking the wrong problem," Hill said.
Even some of the most conservative members of the House ultimately sided with Weatherford. Rep. Charles Van Zant, a Keystone Heights Republican known for his deep religious faith, said he decided to vote for the measure after agonizing over it.
"I can't refuse (the students) their education because they're going to be residents with us," he said. "They are residents with us. They've been residents with us, and nobody is going to say they are not residents."
Despite bipartisan support in the House, there were already signs that the bill could struggle in the Senate. Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, opposes the measure, and the counterpart to the House bill (SB 1400) narrowly escaped the Senate Education Committee after most of the panel's Republicans voted against it.
Supporters of the tuition bill, including the influential business group Florida Council of 100, quickly moved to turn up pressure on the Senate.
"The Council of 100 urges the Florida Senate to continue its thoughtful review of the topic and adopt similar provisions that enable more Florida students to affordably access a higher education in the state," Chairman Steve Halverson said in a statement.
One thing that could boost the bill's prospects is a component limiting tuition hikes. The House version passed Thursday evening would lower from 15 percent to 6 percent the annual tuition increases that universities can impose without legislative approval.
But the Senate version would abolish the "tuition differential" altogether, something Weatherford opposes.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Gaetz could not say when --- or if --- the Senate would take a final vote on the measure.
"We still have plenty of time left for the bill to make it to the floor," he said before the House vote. "I don't know if the bill will make it through all of its committees. I don't know if it will make it through its committees in its current form. So it's kind of hard to know if and when it will get to the floor."
After the vote, Gov. Rick Scott told reporters he prefers the Senate plan, which would also do away with an annual tuition adjustment for inflation.
"I want to reduce tuition for all Floridians. I want to get rid of the 15 percent differential. I want to get rid of the inflationary increase. So I like Sen. Latvala's bill," said Scott, who did not address the part of the bill dealing with undocumented students.