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Politics

Trust fund could be voucher loophole

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published April 28, 2007


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TALLAHASSEE - For the second year in a row, lawmakers are trying to maneuver around the Florida Supreme Court ruling that struck down a private voucher program established under former Gov. Jeb Bush.

The trick: Deposit revenues from corporate income taxes into a trust fund, and specify in statute that the fund can be used for "any purpose other than education."

The Supreme Court early last year tossed out Opportunity Scholarships, ruling that the program was unconstitutional because it diverted state money from public schools.

That followed an appellate court ruling that the voucher program violated the constitutional provision that prohibits Florida from spending money that "directly or indirectly" aids religious institutions. Some of the private schools that had accepted students with voucher money were religious schools.

Opportunity Scholarships served about 700 students and were a cornerstone of Bush's "A-Plus" plan for school accountability and improvement.

The trust fund being pushed by House Republicans this session tries to get around that by declaring its purpose as everything but education funding, and by ensuring the revenues never actually go into the state treasury.

That way, if trust fund dollars finance vouchers, proponents could argue that the money was never general revenue. And it was never intended for public education. Or so the theory goes.

"It's just one step back, " said Senate Majority Leader Daniel Webster, who is sponsoring the Senate version of the bill. He's also sponsoring a companion bill that would set up a new corporate scholarship program for failing schools. That program would be financed with the proposed trust fund.

The House debated the trust fund HB 7211/SB 2832 Friday and is expected to vote on it next week, when Webster's bills are likely to go before senators.

House Republican Joe Pickens acknowledged to suspicious Democrats that the trust fund could be used to "deal with" the Bush v. Holmes ruling.

He called the court decision "forced and contrived ... I disagreed with it, " said Pickens, whose wife is a public school teacher.

The Senate last year, under Webster's lead, tried to preserve Opportunity Scholarships by retooling the way they are funded. But the House brushed off the remedy on the final day of the session.

Starting Monday, proponents have five days to try again.

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or svansickler@sptimes.com.

[Last modified April 28, 2007, 01:16:30]


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