By Kathleen McGrory

Ending a fight that lasted more than a decade, the Florida Senate voted Thursday to let undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities.

The 26-13 vote came as no surprise. The sponsor, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, had been confident he had the votes all along.

But that didn't stop him from getting emotional in debate.

"The eyes of America are on us," Latvala said. "I think we're setting an example. I think we're doing the right thing."

Because the Senate tweaked the bill slightly, it must return to the House for final passage. But both House Speaker Will Weatherford and Gov. Rick Scott said the new language wouldn't hurt the controversial bill's chances of becoming law.

"I look forward to signing this bill," Scott said. "This is a historic day. Just think, children that grew up in our state will now get the same tuition as their peers."

That action would make Florida the 21st state to offer in-state tuition rates to undocumented students.

Only young adults who attended a Florida high school for at least three years would qualify. The Senate estimates about 1,300 students would be eligible annually.

Undocumented students currently pay the out-of-state rate, which is three to four times the rate offered to Florida residents.

HB 851 had a long road through the Legislature.

The concept had been around since Rep. Juan Zapata, R-Miami, sponsored it in 2003. It gained traction this year largely because House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, put his muscle behind it.

Scott was originally cool on the proposal. But when it was amended to limit college tuition hikes, he offered his support.

The bill by Rep. Jeanette Nunez, R-Miami, had no problems in the House. But the Senate version hit several bumps, including a last-minute maneuver by Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron that nearly blocked it from advancing.

"It was touch and go a couple of times," said Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, who helped build support behind the scenes.

When the bill reached the Senate floor Wednesday, some Republicans worried it would prevent out-of-state military veterans from accessing in-state tuition rates.

Latvala said that wouldn't be an issue. But he added new language requiring universities to give preference to veterans.

Even with the amendment, the debate on the floor Thursday mirrored the contentious debate that had taken place throughout the session.

Sen. Aaron Bean, a Fernandina Beach Republican, noted that the measure would cost colleges and universities $49 million in annual tuition revenues -- and predicted they would look to the Legislature to make up the difference.

Rep. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said she would have supported the bill -- if it was about access.

"It's not about access," she said. "It's about having the discount we give Floridians. Unfortunately, they are not Floridians. They are not even U.S. citizens."

But supporters framed it as an economic issue.

"The great ideas that will happen in the world are in the minds of these kids," said Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate.

Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, quoted Cuban national hero and philosopher Jose Marti.

"If you educate children, you won't have to punish adults," he said.

Weatherford expects the bill to pass out of the House early Friday, the last day of the legislative session. He said Scott deserved much of the credit for the bill's passage in the Senate.

But Democrats said Scott had only supported the measure to boost his popularity among Hispanic voters in an election year.

"Was Scott supporting Dreamers when he vetoed just last year their ability to get drivers licenses?" said Florida Democratic Party Vice Chair Annette Taddeo-Goldstein. "Was he supporting Hispanics by refusing to lift a finger to expand access to affordable health care? Today, we celebrate that this critical legislation has finally passed. But in November, Hispanic voters will remember Rick Scott's record -- and where his heart really lies."

House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston, of Plantation, said he believed Republicans had intentionally stalled the bill to make it look like Scott had saved it.

Mariana Castro wasn't thinking about politics.

The 19-year-old Peru native was considering dropping out of the University of Florida because out-of-state tuition was too expensive. She started lobbying for the bill early this year.

"It's amazing to know that the hard work we put in paid off," she said.

She and two dozen other students swarmed Latvala outside of the Senate chambers after the vote. Nearly all requested to take a selfie with the senator.

Latvala stepped away from the commotion for a moment to take it all in.

"This is a big deal," he said. "This is one of those things you'll remember for the rest of your life. I'm proud I was able to do this."

(c)2014 The Miami Herald