By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE Fla. (Reuters) - Just before Election Day, thousands of Florida families who participate in prepaid college savings plans will receive refunds, or major cuts in their monthly payments, and Governor Rick Scott is not shy about taking credit for the windfall.
The timing of the massive payout, and the manner in which Republican Scott is promoting it - in signed letters to parents - has Democrats crying foul, though political observers say the governor is well within campaign ethics boundaries.
Scott is seeking re-election in an expensive and closely watched political battle for the nation's largest swing state. He is being challenged by former Governor Charlie Crist, a long-time Republican running for his old job this time as a Democrat after switching parties in 2012.
A bipartisan higher-education package approved by the state legislature this spring slashed the annual tuition increases at state universities, eliminating them altogether for most colleges.
The reductions mean refunds totaling nearly $200 million for about 18,000 families with paid-up tuition plans purchased since 2008, when the differential tuition fee was authorized. About 22,000 families still paying on future plans will have their monthly payments reduced, at statewide savings of more than $700 million, the board calculated.
"It is my hope that your child and all Florida students will stay in our state when they go to college and that when they choose a career, they will put their talents and skills to work right here in the Sunshine State," Scott wrote in a letter sent out last week informing parents of the reductions.
Refunds, some in excess of $5,000, are expected to be delivered by Nov. 1, only three days before voting, the Florida Prepaid board said in a separate letter to parents.
“It is concerning and appalling, as a taxpayer, that he would use public resources this way but it’s not unexpected,” said Crist campaign spokesman Kevin Cate.
Crist was in office when the annual tuition increases were enacted. Republican leaders have been sending college volunteers to campaign events to picket Crist for hiking their tuition.
Using the perks of incumbency is a common practice for governors and top state officials at re-election time, said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.
"You buy gas and you see the name of the agriculture commissioner on the pump, you write your property tax check, and you make it out to the county tax collector, by name," she said. "It's rampant."
This year, teachers receiving purchase cards for school supplies – a Scott budget item – have found little notes from the governor appended to them.
The Florida Prepaid College Board this month reducing fees by up to 50 percent. The basic four-year university plan went from $350 a month to $173, and the cost for two years at a community college, followed by two at a university, fell as low as $136 monthly.
(Editing by David Adams and Matthew Lewis)