Will immigrant tuition bill be a winner for Rick Scott in November?

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Four years ago, then-candidate Rick Scott attacked GOP primary opponent Bill McCollum on his opposition to an Arizona-style immigration bill.

“Rick Scott backs Arizona’s law,” said a 2010 campaign ad. “He’ll bring it to Florida and let our police check if the people they arrest are here illegally.”

In 2012, Florida Republicans lost the opportunity to unseat Barack Obama, in part due to the state’s Hispanic support for the president. Latino turnout increased has increased three percent from 2008.

Now, as incumbent Scott takes a stab at re-election, Hispanic voters, an increasingly diverse voting bloc, yet again play a pivotal electoral role, reports Dara Kam of the News Service of Florida.

With former Miami state representative Carlos Lopez-Cantera as Scott’s running mate, it seems that Scott acknowledges the role of Hispanics in November.

Now the Republican-led Legislature gives Scott an election-year present—a proposal allowing children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition, under certain conditions, at Florida colleges and universities.

The Hose bill — a leading issue for Speaker Will Weatherford—includes something guaranteed to appeal to the governor, a provision to reduce the “tuition differential” that lets universities charge up to 15 percent more every year without legislative approval.

The Senate companion (SB 1400) would eliminate the differential, a move that Scott fully supports, although he remains mum on the issue of in-state tuition for undocumented students.

Many see a bill for “DREAMers” as a way for the governor to reach out to Hispanic voters, who are increasingly dissatisfied with Scott, especially the more than 200,000 non-Cuban Hispanics in Miami-Dade County who went for Obama in 2012.

Alex Sink, Scott’s 2010 Democratic opponent outpaced Scott by nearly 15 points in Miami-Dade, with 274,638 votes to 204,918 for Scott, writes Kam. With help from the DREAMers, it could be enough to give Scott an edge, not enough to take the Latino vote statewide, but just enough to make the difference.

Congress is addressing the same issue, which could take the pressure off states. If passed, DREAMers would become residents and eligible for in-state tuitions nationwide.

“When you alienate your base, you alienate your base of volunteers,” Jason Hoyt, a Florida Tea Party leader tells the News Service. Hoyt, who sees any perceived support of illegal immigrants as politically damaging, is affiliated with both the West Orlando Tea Party and The Florida Alliance.

“It’s not just about one person not voting,” Hoyt adds. “It’s about one person not volunteering and affecting 20 other people.”

Tom Lee, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, opposes the proposal but will allow it to be heard on the Senate floor.

“I don’t know if we were to pass an in-state tuition bill for undocumented immigrants that it would change one vote in the upcoming election. I have no evidence to support that one way or another,” Lee told Kam.

“I totally understand that for some people this is one of those messages we can send to Hispanics and other minority groups that we are going to treat you as Americans,” Lee continued. “But I also know a lot of people who believe that we’re a country of laws and there’s nothing that trumps the rule of law.

“When you allow people to go to the head of the line or to get special benefits over people who are waiting in line and aren’t entitled to those benefits, you’re not treating everyone fairly.” 

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.