Campaign hurls e-mails at tuition hike
By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE -- Floridians are flooding lawmakers with e-mails blasting a proposed 12.5 percent tuition increase, saying it could throw the popular prepaid college program out of whack and push the price out of reach for new participants.
The e-mail campaign, along with phone calls and brochures sent to the homes of Florida Prepaid's 800,000 participants, is orchestrated by the program's chairman, Miami businessman Stanley Tate.
Brochures take aim at House Speaker Johnnie Byrd's claim of a "family-friendly" budget, warning parents that "double-digit tuition increases will hurt Florida families -- like you."
The brochures direct people to a Web site, www.florida529plans.com, that allows users to "blast" e-mails to all 160 lawmakers at once.
Tate defended the strategy Thursday and criticized the Legislature for not realizing that higher tuition rates jeopardize the success of the program. He likened himself to a David battling a political Goliath. "I have a slingshot, but I don't have a rock," Tate said. "The rock is the people in the program. I can't fight the Legislature."
The hardball approach appears to have backfired. State Rep. David Simmons, R-Longwood, a defender of higher tuition, accused Tate of scare tactics, and wants the fund's actuaries to appear before his committee.
"This scare tactic that is being foisted upon Floridians is just inappropriate," Simmons said.
Simmons is one of 81 House members, all but two Republicans, who voted to let universities raise tuition by up to 12.5 percent -- a figure first proposed by Gov. Jeb Bush in January. Most Democrats oppose it. The Senate budget has a 7.5 percent tuition increase.
The 15-year-old program allows Florida families to pay up front for four years of college tuition at a locked-in rate of about $64 a month. Nearly half of all participating families earn $50,000 a year or less.
With an uncertain stock market and a shaky state fiscal outlook, the question is how tuition increases will affect the program's solvency over time.
The program has about $380-million in reserves, but if the House budget is approved, Tate said, the program will lose $169-million in one year.
The cost of a prepaid contract rises every year with tuition increases, but Tate said it would have to double, putting an "affordable and accessible" college education out of reach for many working-class families.
Simmons disagreed. He said his reading of the program's balance sheet shows that it would take 20 years' worth of double-digit tuition increases to put the program $390-million in the hole.
"Since we have very little need-based assistance in Florida -- one of the lowest of any state in the country -- how else can you give these kids an opportunity to go to college?" Tate says. "It's as simple as that."
An independent review of the program's finances by the Legislature's policy analysis arm said that 12.5 percent tuition hikes every year would put the present value of the fund in the red by 2013. But the analysis noted that lawmakers would have a decade to make adjustments, to keep the program from going into debt.
Tate is an outspoken 76-year-old businessman with little patience for politics, who considers the prepaid program his own. Referring to actuarial projections of the fund, Tate says: "My earnings are going down every year."
Central to the debate is the belief among House Republicans that tuition in Florida is too low, 47th of the 50 states. He said the average cost of a year's tuition at a Florida university is $2,560 a year, about half the national average.
"Tuition is a big bargain in the state of Florida," Simmons said.
Florida also ranks below average in per-student state support of higher education. The state ranked 35th in that category in fiscal 2002, according to Congressional Quarterly.
Democrats say the House wants to balance the budget "on the backs" of working families.
"This is where we draw the line in the sand," said Rep. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa. "We stand proudly with these parents and the Florida Senate in opposing a tuition plan that will slam shut the door of college for so many children of working families."
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From the Times state desk
From the state wire