TALLAHASSEE — He is 81 years old, walks slowly and wears an eye patch. And he is here to fight for those who can't.
Opponent No. 1 in the Legislature's bid to allow state universities to raise tuition as much as 15 percent a year, Stanley G. Tate is ready to "raise hell" and asking all to join him.
"I'm going to do all I can to make sure that the people of this state understand what this bill is going to do," Tate told a House committee considering the measure this month. "I'm going to be spending a huge amount of money to make sure everyone knows. And I really want to you to know I think you're making a terrible mistake."
The Miami businessman is the founder and namesake of Florida's popular prepaid college tuition program. More than 20 years ago, he pushed legislation to allow families to lock in present-day tuition rates for their future college students. He served as program chairman for 18 years until one Friday afternoon, he says, when he was told his services were no longer needed.
This bill will mean a "huge number of people in this state … will no longer be eligible to have a college education," he says.
Using $500,000 of his own money, Tate is getting the message out. He started a Web site (FloridaAffordableTuition.com), is encouraging a petition and ran ads in newspapers across the state with an open letter to legislators and the words: "DON'T RAISE TUITION. RAISE HELL."
Appearing before the House State Universities and Private Colleges Appropriations Committee, Tate spends 15 minutes telling lawmakers they don't know "what this is going to create or cause."
"I'm here representing the low-income and the low- to moderate-income families of the state," he says. "The reason I'm here is they don't have a lobbyist. They don't have any money. Most of them aren't even aware of what this bill is all about."
The lawmakers listen, and one by one, politely thank him for his years of service. But not one agrees with him.
Because university tuition in the state is among the lowest in the nation. Because the public institutions are cutting programs, staffs and courses. Because this year, the sides are united in agreeing this needs to happen — students, staff, legislators, the governor, etc. And no, tuition cannot remain low forever.
"It gives me great heartburn to sit here and support this bill, but we want our children to have a great education," says Rep. Betty Reed, D-Tampa.
The bill passes unanimously and soon is headed to the House floor.
Tate says he expected nothing less.