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Controversial Bright Futures bill clears second hurdle Tuesday

State Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala.
State Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala.(News Service of Florida)
Updated: Mar. 23, 2021 at 2:22 PM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WWSB) - A controversial bill that would alter Florida’s popular Bright Futures scholarship program was approved by a Senate subcommittee in a 6-3 party-line vote Tuesday, after surviving attempts to secure guarantees of funding to students currently in the program.

The version of the bill, heard Tuesday in the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, was a rewrite of the original bill, authored by State Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala.

Bowing to an outcry from students and parents across the state, Baxley offered the rewrite, called a strike-all amendment, that removed some of the bill’s most controversial elements.

One of the provisions deleted would have reduced funding for students who major in subjects deemed not conducive to immediate employment. While the rewrite still directs the list to be created by the state’s Board of Governors, no student would lose funding because of what they study.

The rewrite also removed a provision in the original bill that would have reduced funding for students who had already earned college credit in high school either through programs such as dual enrollment or advanced placements classes.

However, the rewrite preserved other controversial provisions, which Senate Democrats tried to remove in Tuesday’s committee hearing.

During debate, Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, noted that the funding for Bright Futures would be tied to the General Appropriations Act, where funding could be cut or raised every year by the Legislature. “I’m concerned that this language…would circumvent the entire public process,” she said.

She also noted the bill would remove the statutory requirement for Bright Futures to fund qualified students with 100 percent scholarships for top-tier students and 75 percent funding for second-tier students. “How can we expect children to make lifelong decisions based on this funding when we’re failing to guarantee it during the course of their time in college?

“Does this set us up so that a student could receive 100 percent in a good budget year and only 50 percent the following year?” she asked.

“I understand the question and the concern,” Baxley said, “I will tell you there are very unrealistic expectations about any of this stuff being forever when we cannot bind future legislators. We can’t promise ‘forever’ promises. They have to deal with the realities.”

Baxley said a lack of guarantees is honest. “It’s a more realistic approach to life. We can’t guarantee you everything’s going to be like it was because the world’s always changing.”

Cruz’s amendment to remove references to the General Appropriations Act failed on a voice vote.

Another amendment, by Sen. Tina Scott Polsky, D-Boca Raton, sought to ensure that the disapproved list of majors could not be used to determine eligibility or award amounts for any state student assistance grant or state financial aid. It also failed on a voice vote.

Only a few citizens lined up to comment on the revised bill. All spoke against it.

Voting to approve the bill were Republicans Doug Broxson (Pensacola), Manny Diaz, Jr. (Hialeah), Joe Gruters (Sarasota), Tavis Hutson (Palm Coast), Kathleen Passidomo (Naples), and Tom Wright (Port Orange).

Voting against the bill were Democrats Cruz (Tampa), Polsky (Boca Raton), and Audrey Gibson (Jacksonville).

The bill, SB 86, will now head to the Senate Appropriations Committee. If it is approved there, it would go to the Senate floor for debate.

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