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    Stung by ad blitz, lawmakers fire back

    A college student group used radio ads, phone calls and Web site to criticize House budget cuts.

    By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 25, 2003

    TALLAHASSEE - The Florida House, targeted by students in blistering radio ads for cutting scholarships, is striking back by calling the students "a shady group of political thugs."

    The counterattack was organized by House Majority Leader Marco Rubio, R-Coral Gables. It includes e-mail to all 81 House Republicans and talking points to use with constituents who ask about the ads.

    "This group falsely claims the Florida House is proposing cuts to scholarship programs, children's health care and affordable housing. Nothing could be further from the truth," a talking point says. "Somebody is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in untraceable money to convince the House to vote for something we were already going to vote for."

    The response was signed by Rubio and two deputy majority leaders, Reps. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and Connie Mack, R-Fort Lauderdale.

    The intensity of the House reaction suggests the ads are having an impact. It comes about one week after a little-known group called Keep Your Promise launched ads, phone calls and a Web site targeting the House GOP leadership.

    The group's chairman, Alex Schraff, a 21-year-old student at Florida Atlantic University, refuses to identify supporters, claiming they could be sued. "I'd rather not disclose our donors because I, myself, have been threatened with lawsuits," Schraff said.

    Standing by his charges, Schraff said: "We condemn these scare tactics that insult the intelligence of hard-working Floridians."

    The House cuts the Lottery-funded Bright Futures scholarship program by requiring recipients to pay the cost of a tuition increase, which could be as much as 12.5 percent next year or $220. Before this year, the Legislature raised the amount of a scholarship to cover a tuition increase.

    Schraff cited a House bill (HB 1745), awaiting a final vote, to increase the minimum SAT score for a Bright Futures award from 970 to 1050. A legislative analysis says that change would make it harder for many black and Hispanic students to qualify.

    Various interest groups run TV ads seeking to sway the Legislature on issues. Keep Your Promise went a step further by naming lawmakers, such as Rubio, and accusing them of being "out of control" and "looting" the treasury to pay for pet projects.

    The radio ads continued Thursday in Miami and Naples. The cost of the ads easily runs into the tens of thousands of dollars. Schraff said two Spanish-language radio stations in Miami have stopped running the ads after being persuaded by Rubio.

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