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Tuesday, Apr 24, 2018
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St. Pete lawmaker’s immigrant tuition bill moves ahead

TALLAHASSEE _ State Sen. Jack Latvala is on the verge of passing legislation out of the Senate that would offer in-state tuition rates to undocumented students.

At the beginning of the legislative session, passage wasn’t guaranteed.

As the St. Petersburg Republican introduced his bill, SB 1400, during a meeting today of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he said it’s about good policy, not election-year politics.

“I believe every now and then we have to put politics aside, and do what’s right for the state’s future,” he told the committee.

During the 2012 election cycle, though, the issue was very much a matter of politics for Latvala, who was working to secure support for his bid for Senate president.

A political committee controlled by Latvala hammered state Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, for voting for bills that included language offering some form of in-state tuition to undocumented students, a hit that hurt Bean’s poll numbers.

“Bean voted to give illegal immigrants in-state tuition breaks,” the ad stated. “A policy supported by liberals like Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi.”

The bill cited in the television advertisement was a 2005 measure that included language giving in-state tuition rates to a limited number of undocumented workers. It was a less-expansive bill than the proposal Latvala is now sponsoring, which applies to all undocumented students who attended Florida high schools for three years.

After the committee hearing, Latvala said he treats politics and policy differently.

“There has always been a difference with me on how I vote up here and what I think is best, and politics,” Latvala said after the Senate committee hearing. “That was then, this is now.”

The advertisement was paid for by a committee titled Floridians for Ethics and Truth in Politics, a committee that has been aligned with Latvala in state Senate races.

In the Jacksonville-area race, he was backing former state Rep. Mike Weinstein, R-Jacksonville, who Bean defeated in the GOP primary. It was viewed as a proxy race for Latvala’s bid to beat state Sen. Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican challenging him for the 2016 Senate presidency. Members select legislative leaders, and it was widely believed that Weinstein would support Latvala, while Bean was backing Negron.

Nearing passage

After a decade of failed attempts, it appears lawmakers are ready this year to pass an in-state tuition bill. House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, strongly supports the bill, and the 7-2 passage out of Senate Judiciary was seen as a good sign for its future in that chamber.

“I got a couple of votes I did not plan on,” Latvala said. “I’m very happy.”

The bill’s next stop is the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education. Its chairman is Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who said he is opposed to the bill, but Latvala is “optimistic” he will get a hearing.

The issue has always been one steeped in politics.

Gov. Rick Scott said he supports the Senate plan, but only because it includes separate language no longer allowing universities to increase tuition without lawmakers’ approval. When asked about the bill, he highlights that portion, but often doesn’t mention the language dealing with undocumented students.

Latvala, whose bill also makes Florida’s prepaid tuition program cheaper, said the Senate ultimately will pass the House’s version of the bill, which lowers from 15 to 6 percent the amount universities can increase tuition, but leaves in-state tuition for undocumented students in place.

Underscoring the politics of the issue, Scott’s re-election campaign sent out a statement titled “Florida Hispanic leaders stand with governor Scott” shortly after the Senate Judiciary Committee passed Latvala’s bill.

“We are firmly committed to re-electing governor Scott … Hispanics see what all Floridians see: a governor who has worked tirelessly to create jobs,” read the statement, which was signed by nearly 30 Hispanic elected officials.

After the hearing, Latvala said his bill could help Republicans politically, but that wasn’t the intent.

“It (politics) is not the reason we are doing it … but if that’s a byproduct, so be it,” he said.

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