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Negron: Committe Won't Vote On Immigrant Tuition Bill

TALLAHASSEE (The News Service of Florida) — An effort to grant in-state tuition to some undocumented immigrant students appeared all but dead Thursday, as Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, announced his committee would not hear the bill next week.At the same time, Senate President Don Gaetz's office seemed to foreclose the possibility of at least one procedural gambit that could revive the proposal (SB 1400).

Negron made the announcement in a statement issued by his office late Thursday, as the agenda for the Appropriations Committee's final regularly scheduled meeting was being released.

"In-state tuition discounts should, in my view, be reserved for legal residents of Florida," Negron said. "Florida law does not prohibit students who are undocumented from accessing our state colleges and universities. Once these students favorably resolve their residency status, they could become eligible for in-state tuition."

Supporters of the bill seemed taken aback by the news, which came less than a week after Sen. Jack Latvala, the Clearwater Republican who sponsored the bill, announced that half the Senate had agreed to join him in sponsoring the measure. Latvala and Negron are locked in a battle over the Senate presidency for the session beginning after the 2016 elections.

"Whoa. I'm speechless, actually," Sen. Rene Garcia, a Hialeah Republican who chairs the Hispanic legislative caucus, said in an interview with The News Service of Florida. "It's unfortunate. This bill has worked its way through the committee process. I think they should allow the Senate to vote and take the politics out of it."

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. Undocumented students would also have to sign affidavits saying that they had applied for or would apply for legalization

If the bill is in fact dead, it would mark a major defeat for House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who has made allowing undocumented students to pay cheaper in-state tuition one of his top priorities this year. Weatherford devoted a portion of his speech on the opening day of the session to the legislation.

It would also be a setback for Gov. Rick Scott, who said he supported the bill in large part because it would limit or eliminate universities' ability to increase tuition up to 15 percent a year without legislative approval. Scott has crusaded for lower tuition rates in recent months. The governor later said he also backed the in-state tuition for immigrants.

Both men's offices insisted Thursday that the proposal isn't finished.

"This is an important bill, and there is still plenty of time left in the session," John Tupps, a spokesman for Scott, said in an email.

"There are a lot of folks praying for these kids," Weatherford said in a statement released by his office. "Two weeks is a long time, and I remain optimistic."

But a spokeswoman for Gaetz, R-Niceville, seemed to eliminate one possibility for getting the bill approved: pulling the measure from the Appropriations Committee and sending it straight to the floor.

"The president is not planning to remove bills from committees of reference," spokeswoman Katie Betta said in an email.

In a letter to supporters earlier Thursday, Gaetz reiterated his opposition to the bill. But Gaetz had repeatedly said he would not block the bill if it had the necessary votes in the Senate, and his letter seemed to indicate a vote could happen.

"Though I am likely in the minority in the Legislature on this matter, I cannot support taxpayer subsidies in the form of tuition discounts for undocumented or illegal students," Gaetz wrote. "I will vote against SB 1400."

Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican and the Senate president's son, applauded Negron's move in a post to Twitter.

"I've never been a bigger fan of Sen. Joe Negron than this very moment," he wrote.

But Garcia said he will meet with Don Gaetz and Negron next week "to see if there's any way we could revitalize this." He said the president had already promised him that the Senate would vote on the proposal.

"Why not let the Senate decide one way or another?" Garcia said. "It's not only important to Hispanics, it's important to the economy and the well-being of the state."