Marc Caputo: How House Speaker Will Weatherford saved the ‘Dreamer’ tuition bill

05/04/2014 3:43 PM

05/04/2014 3:45 PM

Politicians are people. People fib.

Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford is a politician. And on Thursday, he misled — but in the rarest of ways.

Weatherford praised someone else (Gov. Rick Scott, to be exact) for something he really deserves the greatest credit for: securing the passage of a controversial bill giving in-state college tuition rates to some Florida high school graduates who are undocumented immigrants.

“I have to say, the bill would never have passed the Florida Senate had the governor not engaged,” Weatherford said at an impromptu news conference with Scott and other politicians after the legislation passed.

However, it was Weatherford —not Scott, not anyone else in the Capitol rotunda —who most forcefully used his office to pressure the leaders of the Florida Senate to clear up a procedural impediment that stalled the legislation.

Weatherford employed the bluntest of political tools: a veiled threat to hold hostage the state’s $77.1 billion budget until the Senate un-stuck the bill.

“I will not have a budget on the desk,” Weatherford said in a phone call he placed Monday to the office of Senate President Don Gaetz, an opponent of the legislation.

Gaetz decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. The bill started moving. So did the budget, which was agreed upon, printed and placed on the desks of lawmakers.

After the tuition bill passed, Weatherford downplayed —but didn’t deny —his power play.

“The Senate was aware, and so was the governor, that I was willing to go to great lengths to make sure there was a vote — not that there was a guarantee of passage, but that this issue had its day on the floor of the Senate,” Weatherford told the Miami Herald on Friday.

Weatherford’s move was an object lesson in leadership and legacy-building for the rising Republican star who leaves office this year due to term limits. He stuck his neck out early for legislation opposed by a significant segment of the GOP electorate, some of whom see the measure as “amnesty” and could hold it against him in some future primary.

Scott was far more cautious and he once opposed the measure outright. He wasn’t out front on the issue until the session’s waning days, though he’ll get credit (or blame) for it the way any governor who signs legislation does.

In February, before the session started, Scott told the Legislature’s Hispanic caucus that he would “certainly consider” the issue. But he played up other aspects of the legislation — a freeze on tuition-rate increases — and not the immigrant “Dreamers” who would benefit.

By contrast, Weatherford’s House quickly passed the legislation by big margins.

Scott slowly warmed up to the bill, which polls well and which Republicans hope will start to undo some of the party’s troubles in courting Hispanic, young and swing voters.

Indeed, Scott’s tough reelection fight against Democrat Charlie Crist helped move the GOP-led Legislature and the governor back to the center. The Legislature also passed a measure giving the state Supreme Court the ability to grant law licenses to some undocumented immigrants. And, after years of refusing even to consider medical marijuana, it passed a bill legalizing low-THC cannabis aimed at severely epileptic children.

The Dreamer tuition bill was a higher priority for Scott, in part because it was attached to the tuition-increase freeze. Crist, as governor, had approved tuition-increase legislation.

“This corrects the wrongs of Charlie Crist,” Scott said Thursday. “This is an historic day … everybody has a shot at the dream.”

Scott rightly credited Weatherford and other lawmakers, including Senate sponsor Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, and House sponsor Jeanette Nunez, R-Miami.

However, the governor failed to mention that he, too, had once called for tuition-rate increases. And he neglected to point out that Weatherford and his newly appointed lieutenant governor, Carlos Lopez-Cantera, had voted as state representatives for tuition-increase legislation he’s using to bash Crist.

This year, Lopez-Cantera worked hard for the new bill and lobbied hard for the Dreamer-tuition language to move it in the Senate.

The immigrant-tuition measure was unexpectedly delayed heading into the final week of session when the budget chairman refused to give it a committee hearing. It had passed prior Senate committees and was supported by a majority of the 40-member Senate (albeit, not a majority of the GOP caucus that controls the chamber).

Gaetz said at the time that Scott had never spoken to him about the issue, unlike Weatherford.

Scott weighed in. It certainly helped. But Weatherford’s advocacy — and his threat about the budget — carried the most weight in the end, say those involved in the negotiations.

The bill started moving Tuesday just as Scott fielded a few questions from reporters, one of whom asked if he “always supported in-state tuition for Dreamers throughout your tenure as governor?”

Said Scott: “I have always supported lower tuition for all Floridians.”

That’s not true.

Here’s what Scott told Newsmax in 2011: “With regard to in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, I completely oppose it.”

Scott’s I-always-supported-it fib is the kind of misleading statement we expect out of people, particularly politicians. So is his flip-flop on the issue.

And there Scott has company. Crist lauded the death of a Dreamer tuition bill in 2006 when he was still a Republican running for governor.

Now the politics have changed, as have Crist’s and Scott’s positions.

Unlike their contortions, Gaetz remained constant. Yet Weatherford still made sure to find kind words for him, too.

“I give the Senate president a lot of credit because he brought a bill to the floor that he wasn’t crazy about but that his Senate wanted to pass,” Weatherford said. “I give him a lot of credit for that. That’s statesmanship.”

So is standing up for what you believe in, doing something about it and even shading the truth so others can get the credit you deserve most.

About Marc Caputo

Marc Caputo

@MarcACaputo

Marc Caputo is the Miami Herald's political writer. Hailing from Key West, he graduated from the University of Miami.

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