SEBRING - After decades of saying they'd change, this may be the year Republican legislators actually do.
Last week, the House approved HB 851, which would extend in-state tuition to some undocumented students. The bill not only passed 81-33, Speaker Will Weatherford made it a top priority.
"If you'd have told me six months ago that over 80 members of the Florida House would vote for a bill to give in-state tuition for the children of undocumented immigrants, I would not have believed you," said Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.
HB 851 faces an uncertain future in the Senate, but on Tuesday, a bill that would extend KidCare coverage to the children of legal immigrants easily passed its first Senate test.
The Senate Health Policy Committee voted 7-2 to approve the eligibility expansion, after little discussion. Both of Highlands County's senators, Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, voted for SB 282.
"Obviously, the Republicans are trying to recover support in the Hispanic community," said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.
Over the past two decades, Hispanic population has doubled from 8.5 to 17 percent in Highlands County, where migrant labor is essential to pick oranges, berries and vegetables. Immigrants also dominate dairy and ranch labor forces.
That's been the case for years, but lately the public has told lawmakers that they do not want to penalize the children of illegal immigrants, and polls have proven that point.
"Children are always good politics," MacManus said. "They represent family values, and that seems to be in sync with the Republican platform."
Thirty-three of the 74 Republicans who voted on the bill opposed it, which Weatherford played down, but the speaker lost nearly half his caucus and had to rely on Democrats to help push through the vote. State Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park, voted yes.
Representatives from more homogenous areas found it easier to vote nay, MacManus said, but Republicans are cautious about making immigration bills a issue during a gubernatorial election year.
An October poll by University of North Florida revealed Charlie Crist has a 5-percentage point lead over Gov. Rick Scott; a Quinnipiac Poll released in January showed the Democrat Crist with a wide 46 to 38 percent lead over Scott, the incumbent Republican; and a St. Leo University released in March showed Crist's lead shrinking, 43 to 39 percent.
Even some of the most conservative representatives ultimately sided with Weatherford. Rep. Charles Van Zant, a Keystone Heights Republican known for his deep religious faith, agonizing over his vote.
"I can't refuse (the students) their education because they're going to be residents with us," he said. "They are residents with us. They've been residents with us, and nobody is going to say they are not residents."
Signs that the bill could struggle in the Senate: President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, opposes the measure, and SB 1400, the House bill counterpart, narrowly escaped the Senate Education Committee after most of the panel's Republicans voted against it, including Galvano.
Speaking to reporters last week, Gaetz would not say when or if the Senate would vote on the education bill. "I don't know if the bill will make it through all of its committees. I don't know if it will make it through its committees in its current form. So it's kind of hard to know if and when it will get to the floor."
After the House vote, Gov. Rick Scott told reporters he prefers the Senate plan, which would do away with an annual tuition adjustment for inflation.
The Kidcare bill would eliminate a five-year waiting period for lawfully residing immigrants to be eligible for Florida's low-cost health insurance program for children. It's estimated that more than 25,000 children could get coverage as a result.
This is the third year Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, has sponsored the measure - and the first in which it has passed committees in both chambers.
Garcia emphasized that the bill would help children who are legally living in the state. "This bill is going to go a long way to help a lot of children," Garcia said. Last year's measure didn't get a Senate hearing due to confusion about whether it covered undocumented immigrants as well as legal ones, and Garcia wants no mistake this year.
"That bill is about legal immigrants," he told The News Service of Florida. "It's not about any illegals, I want to make sure, and that's why I made sure that in the bill was spelled out: 'This is about students and kids who are here legally and should have that access, and their families.'"
Republicans are also anxiously eying 2016, MacManus said, when Florida will be a battleground state in the presidential election. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio's seat will also be up for re-election, as well as every congressman.
News Service of Florida contributed to this report