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While tuition soars, dirt gets a break

College students may think of themselves as dirt poor, but in Florida they're regarded as less than dirt.

Fill dirt, unlike students, remains a sacred commodity in Florida, among the 239 items that the state Legislature has decreed too essential to our way of life to be squeezed for new revenue.

Just as dry cleaning is exempt from the state's 6 six-percent sales tax. Or religious bric-a-brac. Or doggie manicures. Or Super Bowl tickets. Or hair cuts. Or photo finishing. Or newspaper subscriptions. Or state flags (from any state).

Or bottled water (as long as the stuff's not carbonated), despite the $42 million in lost state revenue.

Finding the logic behind Florida's sales-tax exemptions can make your brain ache but members of the House Tax and Finance Council indicated last week that it will be a much colder day in hell (or this recession) before they patch the $12 billion worth of holes in the tax code.

Some pursuits, like fish breeding, are just too special for the state to tap for additional revenue, no matter our escalating budget deficits. "If you raise taxes on businesses, business will leave," Rep. Tom Grady, R-Naples, told The Palm Beach Post last week. "If you raise taxes on retirees, retirees will leave."

College students lack the special deference enjoyed by businessmen, retirees and movie fans chomping down on Milk Duds. The same state Legislature so determined to protect charter fishing, farm equipment and eyeglasses from the hunt for new revenue is downright enthused about a measure to allow public universities to jack up tuition.

The Senate Higher Education Committee this last week unanimously approved a bill that would allow Florida's 11 public universities the power to increase tuition rates by as much as 15 percent a year. A senate analysis estimated that the average cost of a single credit would rise more than 70 percent by 2013. Gov. Charlie Crist backs the measure. The House thinks its it's a swell idea. So do the state's public university presidents, all of them desperate for more operating revenue.

On Wednesday, Florida Atlantic University President Frank Brogan stood in FAU's tower in downtown Fort Lauderdale and outlined all the reasons Florida colleges should raise their famously cheap tuition. Brogan said charging students more would allow his university to hold down class size, retain faculty and avoid eliminating programs.

His reasoning might have have been unassailable except Brogan was making an argument to for a mighty tuition increase in a state that insists on exempting the sale of racing dog food (but not domestic dog or cat food) from the tyranny of the state revenue collector.

Maybe it was the juxtaposition