Cut Bright Futures? It's risky businessBy STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 19, 2003
To suburban swing voters who often decide elections, it may not matter much whether the Legislature limits medical malpractice damage awards or raids affordable housing money.
But when politicians mess with a program that is a tangible connection between suburbia and state government, that's different. That's why lawmakers are playing with fire by toying with the Bright Futures scholarship program.
A nasty radio ad surfaced in South Florida this week, backed by a shadowy non-profit group. It named names and accused House members of "trickery," for "cutting" Bright Futures. The ad sent House members into a tizzy, and some suspected that a prominent senator was stirring it up. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Bright Futures has been a huge success since the Legislature formed it in 1997. It uses lottery money to award college scholarships to high school students who maintain a B average and score a 970 or higher on the SAT.
But Bright Futures is a victim of its success. Sooner or later, anything successful in government is going to cost a pile of money. As the program eats up more and more money every year, some lawmakers say Bright Futures is a luxury Florida can no longer afford.
House Republicans have led the way with proposals to curtail the program by raising academic requirements or limiting financial eligibility. They also favor a bill raising the minimum SAT score to 1050, and they have decided that Bright Futures awards cannot keep pace with the rising cost of tuition forced upon universities by the Legislature. In other words, the recipients will have to pay future tuition increases out of their own pockets.
It's politically dangerous business, says Randy Nielsen, a West Palm Beach campaign consultant who advises legislators. "You work hard, you get good grades, you get a college scholarship," Nielsen says. "It's the one lottery program people really feel they get their money's worth out of."
Changing the rules for Bright Futures now, Nielsen says, will remind Florida voters of the lottery "fraud" of a decade ago, when money that was supposed to be used to "enhance" education was in fact was used to supplant general tax revenue spent elsewhere. That was a political disaster for the Legislature.
Two weeks ago, when the House reduced its Bright Futures appropriation from $233-million to $218-million, it was too much for a couple of Republicans to bear.
Reps. Gayle Harrell of Port St. Lucie and Ron Reagan of Sarasota sided with Democrats, who unsuccessfully tried to add $15-million more to the Bright Futures program. Nielsen said both lawmakers are his clients.
Another Nielsen client, it turns out, is Senate Appropriations Chairman Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, Bright Futures' biggest defender in the Legislature. Nielsen also serves as treasurer of Pruitt's PAC, the name of which is Floridians for a Brighter Future.
Nielsen's company, Public Concepts, has done extensive polling and consulting work for Pruitt, and has been paid $52,000 by the PAC this year alone.
With those connections, it's easy to understand why some House members see the hidden hand of Ken Pruitt in those attack ads against the House. But Nielsen and Pruitt said they had nothing to do with Keep Your Promise Inc., the group that popped up out of nowhere with the radio ads.
The organizer of the ad campaign is a 21-year-old Florida Atlantic University student, Alex Schraff, who also said Pruitt has nothing to do with his efforts.
"My fingerprints are not on it," Pruitt said. "But I applaud and commend the students for taking this aggressive step. . . . If the House was not decimating higher education, and jeopardizing the future of these students, they'd have nothing to worry about."
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times state desk
From the state wire