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    Bright Futures, tuition break GOP's ranks

    By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 29, 2003

    TALLAHASSEE - Some Republicans bucked the House leadership Monday on two big higher education issues: changes to Bright Futures scholarships and a potential 12.5 percent tuition increase.

    The revolt failed - both measures passed easily - but the votes showed that some Republicans are nervous that supporting the House education agenda could cause problems in the next election. Hundreds of Floridians have sent angry e-mails to the Capitol, some saying their paychecks are not going up by 12.5 percent.

    Seven Republicans joined Democrats in voting against forcing Bright Futures recipients to pay next year's tuition increase, estimated at $228 a year per student. Eleven Republicans joined Democrats in voting to cap a tuition hike to 7.5 percent.

    With 81 Republicans in the House, leaders had enough votes to prevail on both counts.

    Freshman Republican Rep. Julio Robaina of Miami sided with Democrats both times. He said later that he promised voters he wouldn't tinker with Bright Futures.

    "That was one of my door-to-door campaign items. I felt that was something that shouldn't be touched in any way, shape or form, and I think it's horrible," Robaina said. "If I had to do this again, I'd vote against it again."

    Freshman Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, offered a similar explanation.

    "I ran on Bright Futures being a good program," Galvano said. "It needs to be protected. I feel like I need to be true to my constituents."

    Three Tampa Bay-area Republicans also voted to cap tuition hikes at 7.5 percent: Reps. Kevin Ambler of Tampa, John Carassas of Belleair and Heather Fiorentino of New Port Richey. Every other Tampa Bay area Republican voted to give universities the power to raise tuition by as much as 12.5 percent.

    Democrats reveled in what looked to them like a case of role reversal, with the antitax GOP defending a higher "tax" on middle-class families.

    "You are breaking a promise," Rep. Stacy Ritter, D-Coral Springs, told Republicans. "That is not a message we want to send to our children."

    House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, defended the tuition hike, saying Florida has one of the most heavily subsidized university systems in the nation. Asked if a tuition hike is a tax, Byrd said: "It's a reduction in the subsidy the state gives . . . We're doing the best we can with what we have."

    On a third vote, 13 Republicans broke from the party ranks and joined Democrats in opposing the elimination of a separate fund for cultural and historic preservation programs. The House leadership prevailed, 62-51, in one of the closest floor votes of the session.

    Republicans do not abandon ship lightly, because of a fear of repercussions. Leaders have the power to kill dissenters' bills.

    The decision by some Republicans to jump ship came less than a week after Byrd lieutenants sought to calm fears among freshmen and second-term lawmakers that a controversial vote could come back to haunt them in the next election.

    "No one vote is going to get you unelected, okay?" Rep. Allan Bense, R-Panama City, told a House Republican caucus last week. "We're doing our best to make sure you don't get put in a position that's uncomfortable for you."

    - Times staff writer Michael Sandler contributed to this report.

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