Sen. Ken Pruitt, longtime Florida legislative leader, to step down

TALLAHASSEE — Sen. Ken Pruitt, a top state Republican who founded Florida's Bright Futures college scholarship program, has decided to leave office early to spend more time with his family in Port St. Lucie.

Pruitt's last day in the Legislature will be Aug. 4. His term would have ended in 2010. Charlie Crist will have to call a special election.

Pruitt, 52, has served for 18 years in the Legislature and was Senate president from 2006 to 2008. Known as one of the most effective legislators and bipartisan leaders, Pruitt founded the scholarship program and steered huge sums to colleges, research institutes, his district and the Everglades.

Pruitt's successor, Senate President Jeff Atwater, said Pruitt informed him Friday, the last day of the 2009 lawmaking session, that he planned to resign.

Atwater said Pruitt's service was "unique'' and helped improve the lives of millions of current and future Floridians seeking college degrees.

"Ken Pruitt's legacy is that he's a man who never had the privilege nor opportunity to pursue a college degree, and when he rose to the heights of power, he exercised that power by opening the doors of education to every child of this state," Atwater said.

"That's pretty damn impressive."

This session, though, the state's dire financial conditions led Pruitt to help scale back Bright Futures. He sponsored legislation to increase university tuition rates by up to 15 percent, even though funding for each Bright Futures scholarship will remain steady.

Pruitt, who declined to comment, grew weary of office after his 29-year-old son's abrupt death in 2007, friends say. His wife has also battled cancer.

News of Pruitt's resignation spread through the Capitol Friday after he met with Gov. Charlie Crist and cast an affirmative vote for the state's $66.5 billion budget.

Sen. Jim King, also a former Senate president, said Pruitt would be missed.

"You look at the things he did as a senator and representative, and he was incredible," King said.

Senate Republicans are expected to rally around former state Rep. Joe Negron of Stuart as a replacement. Negron had already filed to run for the seat before Pruitt's resignation. Negron narrowly lost a congressional race in 2006 and briefly ran for attorney general.

"Ken Pruitt set the gold standard for public service," said Negron.

Herald/Times staff writers Shannon Colovecchio and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@miamiherald.com

Sen. Ken Pruitt, longtime Florida legislative leader, to step down 05/08/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 11, 2009 1:42pm]

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