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Jack Latvala: Getting Immigrant Tuition Bill to Floor Biggest Challenge

March 25, 2014 - 7:00pm

The sponsor of a measure that would allow undocumented immigrant students to pay cheaper tuition rates insists he has the votes to pass the bill in the Senate.

But the biggest snag with the bill -- a priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford -- is getting it to the Senate floor for a full vote, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said Wednesday. Last week, the House approved a similar plan (HB 851) that would allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates at colleges and universities as long as they first go to school in Florida for four years in a row.

"I know beyond a shadow of a doubt. I'm one of the best vote-counters in the Senate, if I should happen to say so myself. I know we have the votes to pass this in the Senate if we could just get a hearing on the floor. That will be our challenge. We have three more committee stops. We have five weeks or so to do it, and I'm going to work on it every single day to make sure it happens," Latvala told dozens of college and university students at a press conference Wednesday afternoon in the Capitol. The event was part of the Florida Student Association's annual "Rally in Tally," and the immigrant tuition proposal is one of the group's top three priorities this session.

The Senate Education Committee narrowly approved Latvala's proposal (SB 1400) with a 5-4 vote last week. Senate Judiciary Chairman Tom Lee, a former Senate president, said late Wednesday he had not decided whether to agenda the bill for a committee hearing next week, but appeared to be leaning in favor of giving the proposal a vetting, although he personally opposes the plan.

Latvala's bill includes a provision pushed by Gov. Rick Scott that potentially lowers higher-ed costs for all students by doing away with 15 percent annual tuition increases that universities can impose without legislative approval. The House version, sponsored by Rep. Jeanette Nunez, R-Miami, would lower the "tuition differential" from 15 percent to 6 percent.

On Lee's list of bills waiting for a hearing in his committee, a handwritten note in the margins beside Latvala's bill reads: "A governor's priority." Scott, who is running for re-election and campaigned on an Arizona-style immigration law in his first bid for governor four years ago, has not commented publicly on the portion of the bill dealing with undocumented students, but said he favors Latvala's plan. Scott has made holding down tuition one of his priorities.

"Sen. Latvala has a bill moving that's supported by the governor. I may be willing to agenda the bill just simply as a courtesy to him and the process," Lee, who voted against the bill last week, told The News Service of Florida.

Lee said he objected to a similar plan when he was the Senate president in 2006.

"I just felt like it allowed a lot of people to leapfrog others that might have been not entitled to in-state tuition because they were trying to go through the legal immigration process and yet we're going to allow these folks to get in-state tuition," he said.

Lee hasn't changed his mind about the current bill, he said.

"There's a point at which, on these bigger issues, you have to ask yourself, does one man or one woman have a right to stop the wheels of progress for the other 159 members of the Legislature? So regardless of how I might feel about it, whether or not I would assert my authority to not agenda the bill is an entirely different question," Lee, R-Brandon, said.

GOP leaders can pull bills from committees -- and often do -- to expedite getting them to the floor for a full vote as the clock winds down on the legislative session. But Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, opposes the measure.

Latvala said he has "a several vote margin" on the proposal. And he pointed out that Gaetz last year required the chamber to vote on a pension overhaul that was a priority of Weatherford, even though the bill ultimately failed.

"So we had to vote on the pension issue last year even though they knew they didn't have the votes because it was the speaker's priority. Well, this year I've got the votes and it's a speaker's priority, so I hope that we'll have that same consideration," Latvala said.

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