The delicate process of granting in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrants appears to be entering a key phase, as lawmakers work to bring competing versions of the legislation together and send a bill to Gov. Rick Scott.
The Senate version of the proposal (SB 1400) passed the Education Appropriations Subcommittee on an 8-5 vote Wednesday, bringing it one step away from the floor. The measure still needs the full Appropriations Committee to sign off.
If that happens, the bill seems likely to pass the 40-member Senate. The chamber's 14 Democrats would probably support it, and six Republicans have voted for it in committee. Combined with the vote of Sen. Rene Garcia, a Hialeah Republican who co-sponsored the bill, those votes would give the measure a majority on the floor if everyone who has supported the proposal continues to do so.
The Senate bill would grant a blanket exemption from the much-higher, out-of-state tuition rates to anyone, regardless of their immigration status, who attends a Florida secondary school, other than the state's online school, for at least three consecutive years before graduating from high school.
Under a new amendment approved Wednesday, undocumented students would also have to sign affidavits saying that they had applied for or would apply for legalization.
"And I believe under this bill, with the amendment, we've created a pathway to begin ... moving people from out of the shadows into the system so that they can be part of the system and productive, and I believe they want to be," said Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz.
But there are still obstacles. House and Senate leaders need to bridge differences on another part of the bill dealing with how much tuition can rise each year without legislative approval. And some members of the Republican Party's conservative base are still outraged at the measure.
James Calkins, an activist who has become an outspoken opponent of the measure, called it "toxic" during his comments to the Education Appropriations Subcommittee.
"What this bill does is give more rights to illegal immigrants than citizens of other states. ... It is (an) election year, and your outright pandering to illegal immigrants is well-known by everyone in the state," Calkins said.
Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, also questioned the measure, noting that colleges and universities are already waiving out-of-state tuition rates for many students for a variety of reasons, including their immigration status.
"The fee waiver and exemption system is clearly working for students based on those numbers," he said. "Why do we need a statewide policy?"
The other closely watched issue in the bill deals with what is known as "tuition differential," which allows universities to raise tuition up to 15 percent a year. The bill would abolish the law for every state university except the University of Florida and Florida State University, which would still be allowed to request 6 percent increases from the state Board of Governors.
Under the House bill (HB 851), every school could apply for an annual 6 percent increase, down from the current differential cap of 15 percent.
Scott has pushed for repealing the tuition differential entirely, and has until recently focused his comments about the bill on that portion of the proposal. But after the Education Appropriations Subcommittee vote, the governor raised concerns about the new paperwork requirement in the Senate bill for undocumented immigrants.
"While I am open to the compromise on the reduction in tuition rates for FSU and UF, I am concerned that today's amendment language may have the unintended consequence of limiting in-state tuition for some," he said.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, projected optimism Wednesday about the measure's fate. Weatherford has made the bill one of his top priorities in his final legislative session but has also called for some version of differential tuition to remain in place.
"I think we're getting closer and closer to the Senate," he told reporters. "I feel very confident about the bill's chances."