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Florida’s GOP Hispanic Lawmakers Disappointed

State leaders accomplish none of goals


May 4, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved. 

TALLAHASSEE - Hispanic lawmakers who were confident their growing influence in the Republican Party would help them loosen high school graduation standards for thousands of immigrants left the capital disappointed.

Gov. Jeb Bush never agreed to change the standards, and a compromise measure died on the final day of the Legislature's regular session.

To add to their frustrations, two other measures that would have given Hispanic students a break on rising standards for Bright Futures college scholarships and allow immigrant students to pay in-state tuition also died at session's end.

''We lost an opportunity to help kids, and to be honest, that hurts,'' said state Rep. Ralph Arza, a Hialeah Republican who sponsored the legislation.

The most controversial change would have allowed students who are not proficient in English to earn a high school diploma even if they fail the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

The FCAT is the backbone of Bush's education accountability reforms. New standards take effect this year that require FCAT success for seniors to graduate -- a change that is expected to prevent thousands of students from getting a diploma this year.

Fearing that the new standards would have an inordinate impact on Hispanic students, lawmakers decided this year to cash in on their GOP loyalty by asking Bush to support loosening the standards.


The plan was carried by Hispanic lawmakers from key constituencies across the state, including Rep. John Quiñones, an Orlando-area Puerto Rican whose election last year was touted by party leaders as evidence of the GOP's appeal to thousands of non-Cuban Hispanic swing voters.

But with their inability to persuade Bush or the Republican-led Legislature to back their initiatives, one analyst said Saturday it is worth asking whether the party understands how its decisions could hamper efforts to cultivate an increasingly important voting bloc -- especially so close to the 2004 presidential election.

''If they don't begin to be more sensitive to the interest of some of their urban and Hispanic population, they're going to lose that base,'' said Dario Moreno, a Florida International University political science professor and pollster.

The Hispanic delegation's failures on the education bills stand in stark contrast to the hope many felt earlier this year, when Republican House Speaker Johnnie Byrd named Reps. Marco Rubio and Gaston Cantens to key positions in his leadership team. Alex Diaz de la Portilla was named the second-highest ranking senator.

The frustrations illustrate the complicated reality for those legislators, who must remain loyal to their leaders in Tallahassee but advocate for their communities.

Moreno noted that Rubio, the House majority leader, already has been targeted through negative mailings in and bad publicity on Spanish radio in Miami, focusing on the House's support for scaling back Bright Futures.

While Hispanic lawmakers enjoy more power than ever in the Capitol, the reality is that the 12 GOP House members and three senators make up less than 10 percent of the Legislature. Almost half are freshman.

In addition, their party is struggling with broader rifts over education, taxes, spending and immigration.


Rubio supported the in-state tuition proposal for immigrant students but said his leadership remained fearful that the legislation would be a boon for illegal immigrants. A fellow Cuban-American lawmaker, Rep. Gus Barreiro of Miami Beach, said even he worried the bill might help them.

On the FCAT legislation, the delegation's biggest obstacle proved to be Bush.

The governor's refusal to loosen education standards that he considers critical to his goal of boosting student achievement forced legislators to water down their original plan.

That compromise, which would have allowed seniors who fail the FCAT to attend community college or earn a GED over the summer, passed the House unanimously.

But Diaz de la Portilla argued that the Hispanic lawmakers should not have given up their fight so easily. So he didn't push for passage in the Senate until it was too late.

''We should have stuck to our principles,'' Diaz de la Portilla said.

Rubio said Saturday that the FCAT bill could come up again during a special session.

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