Florida aviation industry leaders are hailing the elimination of the state's tax on aviation fuel purchased by professional flight schools, part of the $400 million tax cut package passed by the Republican-led Legislature last month.

The cheaper gas, however, is drawing fire from critics, who call the arrangement unfair to struggling middle class Floridians.

The aviation fuel tax cut means that students attending the state's four FAA-accredited professional flight schools no longer have to pay a nearly seven cent-per-gallon levy on gas they purchase from the schools while accruing flight time in school-owned aircraft.

"You always have to have that thought in the back of your mind, you know, am I going to have enough money to continue, and luckily, our school does a great job and we're fortunate enough to have it, but it'd be really nice if we could extend flight to other kids that are less fortunate," said Ryan Fennell, a student pilot at the Melbourne-based Florida Institute of Technology, who this month flew a school plane to EAA AirVenture, the world's largest airshow, in Oshkosh, WI.

In order to pass the tax cut package, the cash-stapped Legislature was forced to make a consequential trade-off, cutting the state's share of public school funding. That, in turn, has led counties to increase property taxes in what the package's opponents call a "shell game" orchestrated by Tallahassee's GOP leaders.

"Shouldn't we use that opportunity to help the quality of life for Floridians? Shouldn't we plan more effectively? We didn't," Rep. Mark Pafford (D-West Palm Beach), the House minority leader, said during a June debate over the state budget.

Administrators at the flight schools beg to differ. They're predicting the aviation fuel tax cut will bring increased enrollment, leading to more flight training and a positive impact on the state's economy.

"Aviation and aeronautics is growing so fast in Florida right now that the potential to stay in Florida is there, as well, and I'm sure that's what the Legislature was looking at," said James Roddey of Daytona Beach-based Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, which had a formidable recruiting presence at Oshkosh.