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Tax break for aiding pupils is blocked

A state lawmaker wants a bill affecting gifts for private school students to spell out which gifts are covered.

By DIANE RADO

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 7, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- Uh oh.

Everything was running smoothly on opening day of the Legislature Tuesday -- until one of Republican Senate President John McKay's top priorities ran into a roadblock.

State Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, broke ranks with his colleagues and voted against a bill pushed by McKay to give tax credits to corporations that give money for poor children to go to private school.

Without Diaz de la Portilla, Republicans on the Senate Education Committee lost the vote on the bill and had to quickly regroup. They voted to reconsider the legislation when they meet next week.

Diaz de la Portilla said he supports the bill in concept, but details need to be ironed out. For example, the bill doesn't specify that donations would pay specifically for tuition. Diaz de la Portilla worried that the money would be spent on other expenses, such as transportation or books.

Diaz de la Portilla was sponsor of legislation two years ago that gave public dollars, or vouchers, to children in failing schools to attend private school. This year, he is sponsoring legislation to give vouchers to kids in overcrowded schools.

"Our priority is to educate children, not to give corporations tax breaks," Diaz de la Portilla said.

The bill Tuesday would allow a tax credit of up to $200,000 a year to corporations that contribute to non-profit scholarship organizations that award $3,500 scholarships to children to go to private school. The children must qualify for federal free and reduced lunch programs, and have attended a public school during the previous school year or be entering kindergarten or first grade.

Critics say this is another form of vouchers that would drain up to $50-million a year from Florida and may violate the state Constitution.

But Larry Spalding, representing the American Civil Liberties Union, said Tuesday that courts have ruled in favor of similar legislation in Arizona.

"This is not a voucher. This is not an indictment of the public education system," Senate Education Chairman Ken Pruitt said. "It is bringing corporate America to the table to provide alternatives to kids."

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