After a sharply-charged debate that touched on the law, immigration and America, a divided Florida Senate voted Thursday in favor of letting students who live in the country illegally qualify for in-state college tuition rates.
The vote was not unexpected, but it was still a landmark day. The Republican-controlled Senate has killed the proposal several times in the past several years. The bill is expected to pass now and head to the desk of Gov. Rick Scott who has publicly endorsed the legislation for several weeks.
"It's an exciting day for every student that dreams of a college education," Scott said shortly after the bill passed. "This is a historic day. Children who grow up in this state now get the same tuition as their peers."
Florida would become the 20th state to offer some sort of in-state tuition to students brought to the United States illegally, The New York Times reported.
Several times during this year's session the bill appeared in trouble as some Republicans sharply criticized the idea and even said it was "pandering." But it emerged as a top priority for Scott during an election year in which Hispanic voters may play a crucial role.
The bill would allow students in the country illegally to pay the same tuition rate as other residents if they had attended a Florida school for at least three years prior to graduation. Currently the in-state tuition rate is one-quarter of what is paid by out-of-state students and those who are in the country illegally.
The measure would also curtail the ability of state universities to raise tuition above the rates set annually by the Legislature.
The 26-13 vote in favor of the bill followed a lengthy debate where senators quoted Langston Hughes, Aristotle and even Walt Disney to justify their support for the legislation. Those in favor of the bill contended that it's wrong to punish students who were brought to the country while they were children.
But several GOP 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. "We are giving so many benefits to non-citizens....Does it matter even being an American citizen anymore?"
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and sponsor of the bill contended, however that the "eyes of America" were on Florida and that it was time for legislators to "do the right thing."
Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, said he probably would have opposed the bill six months ago and would have considered it too "politically toxic for us to tackle."
"You begin to realize simply saying no is not a solution," Legg said.