- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 23, 2014

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - With time running out on his first term, Gov. Rick Scott entered his fourth legislative session with a limited agenda dealing with education, tax cuts and the state’s economy.

And as he is locked in what could be a tough re-election fight, the governor is snared in a complicated debate over immigration that has pitted the Republican against members of his own party.

Scott decided in March to back a measure that would grant a tuition break to some Florida high school graduates who entered the country illegally when they were children. Currently those students pay a rate that is four times higher than what is paid by other Florida residents.

The bill has passed the Florida House despite a large number of GOP legislators voting against it. But the legislation has gotten mired in the Florida Senate due to opposition from key Republicans. It will take a supermajority vote to revive the legislation during the nine days that remain in this year’s session. The bill sponsor’s predicts that a vote will come early next week.

Still Scott is having to use his own muscle to convince reluctant legislators it’s time for them to act.

He’s had to personally lobby top Republicans such as Senate President Don Gaetz and he’s needed to take a more forceful stance publicly than what he initially intended.

“We’ve got to give these children the same opportunity as all children,” Scott said this week. “Whatever country you are born in, whatever family or zip code, you ought to have the chance to live the dream. Part of that dream is being able to afford education.”

Scott is taking a firm stance in favor of the bill now even though four years ago he promised to pursue tough measures dealing with immigration.

Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, said Scott is only pushing the issue because he has seen polls that show Hispanic voters favor the tuition break.

Both Scott and his main Democratic rival, Charlie Crist, are already actively targeting Hispanic voters. Both campaigns have launched Spanish-only websites. Scott on Wednesday began airing a Spanish language ad both online and in television markets in Miami, Orlando, Tampa, and Fort Myers markets.

The two candidates have traded barbs over the issue with the Crist campaign ripping Scott for “failed leadership” because he did not take a higher profile on the issue until recently. The Republican Party of Florida meanwhile has criticized Crist because he was opposed to the tuition break when he was running for governor back in 2006.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, helped scuttle a similar bill when he was Senate president a decade ago. But he said he understands why there is a big push this year.

“Things have changed that much in the politics of our party and they have changed that much in the politics of our state,” Lee said.

Lee predicted there would be a “meltdown” if the final days of the session if the Senate does not vote but he remains firmly opposed.

“I think it’s pandering and I think it is fundamentally inconsistent of us to elevate certain groups because we are at a moment in history where that becomes the populist theme,” Lee said.

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