By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - Florida legislators voted on Friday to allow students who are children of undocumented workers to qualify for in-state tuition rates at public universities and community colleges.
Republican Governor Rick Scott said he will sign the bill, making Florida the 20th state to offer children brought to the United States illegally the same tuition as U.S. citizens.
The approval of the legislation comes as Scott faces a tight re-election campaign and Florida Republicans look to court the state's influential Hispanic voters.
Early in his term, Scott stated publicly he would not support the legislation.
Riding a Tea Party wave of conservative support in 2010, Scott campaigned on a promise to bring Florida a law like Arizona's hotly debated statute allowing police to check the immigration status of anyone they believe may be undocumented.
He abandoned that idea after it failed in his first legislative session as governor. But in late 2011, he told Newsmax website that "with regard to in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, I completely oppose that."
Now in a close campaign against his predecessor, former Governor Charlie Crist, Scott has been trying to appeal to Florida's large and politically active Latino community.
He recently chose former state Representative Carlos Lopez Cantera of Miami as his lieutenant governor and publicly pressured lawmakers to take up the in-state tuition bill, which passed the House in an 84-32 vote on Friday. Senators approved the legislation on Thursday.
When asked about his change on the issue, Scott cast his position as an advocacy of keeping college costs low for working families.
Out-of-state tuition is about four times the in-state rate.
"We are trying to right the wrongs of the previous administration that raised the price of a college education and opposed providing in-state tuition for children of immigrants," said Scott.
"The Legislature did the right thing, and I look forward to signing this historic legislation."
Scott pointedly mentioned that Crist, elected as a Republican but now running as a Democrat, had also opposed in-state tuition for illegal immigrants in the past.
As soon as the bill cleared the Legislature, the Florida Democratic Party distributed a video clip of Scott's 2011 remark that he would "completely oppose that" - along with quotes from his remarks to reporters earlier on Friday when he insisted his position had not changed.
(Editing by Kevin Gray and Gunna Dickson)