by Paul Smith
The 19th century German statesman, Otto von Bismarck once said, “Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made.”
It is Larry Bracken’s job not only to see laws being made, but also to influence the legislative process in the lawmaking sausage-factory of the Florida Capitol.
That’s because Bracken is the official lobbyist for PJC, and his most important work is done not in Pensacola, but in Tallahassee, where many of the important decisions are made that affect PJC and its students.
Bracken has held this position at the college for the past 20 years, mostly working on PJC’s behalf alone in Florida’s capital city.
“I don’t even have a secretary,” Bracken said. “I’m a one-man show. I’ve got a cell phone and a laptop.”
He does, however, work with about 15 other community college lobbyists representing their respective colleges. “We work as a team,” Bracken said, “each looking out for our individual colleges and the system as a whole.”
And Bracken says the work can be intense.
In a given session, the legislators in the Florida House of Representatives and the Florida Senate vote on about 3,000 bills, and Bracken explained that usually about 400 of those bills have something to do with education in some form or another.
It is during these legislative sessions – which ostensibly only last 60 days, though interim committees and meetings run year round – where every major component of how PJC will function is affected by governmental processes.
“Just about every part of the college is impacted by the laws that are enacted in Tallahassee,” said Bracken.
The Legislature votes on bills that shape everything from PJC’s budget to tuition, from financial aid to scholarships.
And Bracken’s job is to monitor each relevant bill to make sure the legislators have the best interest of PJC and other community colleges and universities in mind.
“I follow all those bills,” Bracken said, “and if they’re bills that affect us badly, I try to get them fixed; if they’re bills that affect us positively, I try to make sure they pass.”
Bracken said he accomplishes this task by “appealing to [the legislators’] common sense and better judgment.”
“That is what I really do,” said Bracken. “I give information to the members [of the Legislature]; I give information to members’ staff; I give information to committee staff; and then I collect information and share that with the appropriate people back at the college.”
The current legislative session began on March 3, and one significant item on the agenda this time around is the education budget.
A 15 percent budget cut is being proposed for all of Florida’s community colleges, which Bracken described as “the biggest issue facing us right now.”
If passed, this 15 percent cut could eliminate as much $5 million from PJC’s budget. And this would be on top of the 4 percent cut imposed in January that reduced the budget by $1.4 million.
Bracken explained that both the House and Senate suggest the cuts must go through because tax revenues are dramatically lower this session.
However, whether or not the cut will be as high as 15 percent is up in the air at the moment.
“Right now they’re looking at the dollars available … everybody’s waiting to see where we are,” said Bracken. “I can tell you this: there are going to be budget cuts and there are going to be tuition increases.”
Regardless of how much is eventually cut from the budget, Bracken believes PJC will survive the decrease in funding.
But he does have his concerns: “The problem is: what will we look like after these cuts? … I’m worried about what impact this will have on our ability to provide services to students.”
Bracken views his own job as providing a service to the student body.
“The best bill is always a bill that does something for students,” Bracken said. “Need-based financial aid, Bright Futures, anything that helps students is a good bill.”
One subject which has popped up many times in recent years that Bracken and the other community college lobbyists feel is bad for students was the “excess hours” bill.
The bill has been introduced many times by Sen. Lee Constantine (R – Orlando) and seeks to raise tuition for students who exceed the 64 hours of classes required for their degrees.
The aim of the bill is to save the state millions of dollars from students paying in-state tuition fees for classes not required by their degrees.
But critics of the bill claim it does not take into consideration students who have decided to change their degrees or return to college for a different degree, and many students attending PJC fit into this category.
“It’s a bill that penalizes people for learning,” said Bracken. “I’m not faulting Sen. Constantine; I think he means well, but it has an adverse affect on the returning student, the older student, and the working student.”
After the bill was passed in 2005, Bracken and his fellow lobbyists pushed for then Gov. Jeb Bush to issue a veto.
Their efforts were successful, as Bush wrote in his veto letter, “The bill applies the same excess credit hour policy to both state university and community college students, thus overlooking the very real differences between these two types of students. … I am not willing to take this risk and potentially jeopardize the dreams of thousands of individuals seeking a higher education through our community college system.”
The bill is to be introduced again during this legislative session, and Bracken said, once again, he and the community college lobbyists will be fighting against it.
During his 20 years as the lobbyist for PJC, many of the same issues affecting students, such as the excess hours bill, have surfaced time after time.
“When I was in college a million years ago, tuition was too high. It’s too high for you, [but] it’s never going to go down,” Bracken said. “When I was in college a million years ago, textbooks cost too much. I bet your textbooks cost too much; ten years from now they’re going to cost more.”
And when the current legislative session comes to a close and it is known just how much will be cut from PJC’s budget and whether the excess hours bill passes into law, Bracken’s job will not be over.
“It’s a never-ending thing,” he said.
But he considers his job to be a necessary part of operating a community college. Bracken said, “You cannot afford just to sit back and let things happen to you.”
For now, Bracken will continue to be the only man from PJC watching out for students’ interests while also watching first-hand just how the sausage gets made.