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    Mystery group targets House budget cuts

    By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 16, 2003

    TALLAHASSEE -- A mysterious new group captured the Capitol's attention Tuesday with a sophisticated attack against the House and its budget cuts.

    Exactly who was behind the campaign was unclear. Organizers used campaign law loopholes to keep names of donors private.

    The only person publicly connected to the group is a 21-year-old college student from Broward County. But the language was straight from the school of hardball politics.

    "They're at it again. Politicians in Tallahassee, robbing millions of our tax dollars to fund their pet projects, just like they did with the lottery," says one ad that targets House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City. "They're breaking their word again. Looting trust funds that we set up to keep the politicians' hands off our money. They're out of control and must be stopped."

    The message is being spread by phone banks, radio ads and a Web site that encourages e-mails to a dozen House Republicans. The campaign adds a new dimension to the budget fight at a time when tensions between the House and Senate already are high.

    Senate President Jim King has been hoping for a surge of public outrage directed at the House. Without it, he has said, he stands little hope of generating support for higher taxes to avoid deep budget cuts.

    The radio ads, airing in Miami and Naples, cost thousands of dollars. They were bought by Keep Your Promise Inc., a non-profit group formed last Friday that is also is spreading its message on the Internet at www.keepyourpromise.org.

    The ads feature background music and a female announcer, and the Web site provides e-mail links to Byrd and nearly a dozen other House Republicans. Alexander Schraff, a student at Florida Atlantic University, said the project was the work of people who oppose changes to the Bright Futures college scholarship program.

    "It's just concerned teachers, parents and students," Schraff said. "I'm just availing myself of the political process."

    Asked how much money the group has raised, Schraff said: "I'm not really prepared to comment."

    Schraff is an international economics major and the incoming editor-in-chief of FAU's student newspaper. Because Keep Your Promise is a non-profit group, not a political committee, it doesn't have to disclose its donors.

    "Who's funding this?" asked Rep. Marco Rubio, R-Coral Gables, the House Republican leader, who was targeted in a Spanish-language ad. "This is clearly an effort to intimidate us during the budget process."

    Talk quickly centered on Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, the Senate's lead budget writer who is a hero to many college students for adamantly opposing changes to the Bright Futures program. Pruitt said he had nothing to do with it, but he applauded the students and said the House was "decimating" higher education in Florida.

    "When you conduct yourself recklessly, there are going to be repercussions for your actions," Pruitt said.

    The Bright Futures program pays 75 percent of tuition and fees to Florida students who maintain a B average in high school and score 970 on the SAT. House leaders, alarmed at the program's spiraling cost, have cut $15-million from next year's scholarships and will require Bright Futures recipients to pay as much as 12.5 percent more in higher tuition next year out of their own pockets.

    Republicans also are proposing that the minimum SAT score for a Bright Futures scholarship be raised from 970 to 1050.

    Pruitt and other senators say any changes to Bright Futures "break a promise" to Floridians, a message copied almost word-for-word in the radio ads.

    -- Times researcher Deirdre Morrow contributed to this report.

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