Florida students living in the country illegally will be allowed to qualify for in-state college tuition rates under a bill signed into law Monday by Gov. Rick Scott. Scott signed the bill privately, but he planned to tout the signing at a campaign event scheduled later in the day in Fort Myers.
The new law offers in-state college tuition rates to undocumented students who had attended a Florida school for at least three years before graduation. The current in-state rate is one-quarter of what out-of-state students and those in the country illegally pay.
"Signing this historic legislation today will keep tuition low, and allow all students who grew up in Florida to have the same access to affordable higher education," Scott said in a statement. "With this legislation, higher education became more affordable and more accessible to all Floridians."
The measure also restricts the ability of Florida universities to raise tuition above the rate set each year by legislators. It repeals a law that allowed universities to raise tuition up to 15 percent a year. Instead it allows two schools — the University of Florida and Florida State University — to raise tuition up to 6 percent without approval by the Florida Legislature.
When he campaigned as governor four years ago, Scott vowed to push tougher anti-immigration measures. He also voiced opposition to offering the in-state tuition rate to students living in the country illegally.
But the Republican governor changed his stance during a year when Hispanic voters may prove to be crucial during a tough re-election fight.
Scott also plans to remind voters that former Gov. Charlie Crist, who is now running as a Democrat, approved the changes that let universities raise tuition above the rates set annually by legislators.
The in-state college tuition bill had been considered several times before over the last decade and had support from Republicans such as then-Gov. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio when he was in the Legislature. But it divided the Republicans and never passed.
This year, the proposal again drew sharp opposition from some Republicans. During floor debate, several GOP state senators questioned the potential cost — nearly $50 million when fully implemented — and said the state should not reward people who had broken the law by coming, or living, in the United States illegally.
"I know it feels good giving benefits away," said Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach said in early May. "We are giving so many benefits to non-citizens .... Does it matter even being an American citizen anymore?"
The measure was ultimately passed due to the strong pushing by Scott and other top Republican leaders such as House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.