Florida House must insist on equitable funding for USF

BRADENTON HERALD EDITORIAL | Senate’s pretext for deep cuts doesn’t add up

February 19, 2012 

The Florida House stands as a major roadblock to Sen. JD Alexander’s relentless drive to establish an independent Florida Polytechnic University and slash funding for the University of South Florida.

Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, has described the push for USF Polytechnic’s independence as the embodiment of the parochialism he disdains. Speaker-designate Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, vowed to thwart the disproportionate budget cuts to USF that the Senate Budget Committee approved last week.

As home to USF Sarasota-Manatee, the region’s House members should unite behind this opposition to the Senate proposal.

This week the full Senate will take up its version of the state budget, which eliminates $400 million in higher education money. The House plan, already approved, cuts far less, $250 million. The two chambers have to negotiate an agreement before sending the budget to Gov. Rick Scott.

While Alexander agreed to reduce his vindictive spending assault on USF by $25 million, a welcome move, the university still will suffer a deeper reduction than other universities. That $25 million would have been money set aside as a political carrot so USF cooperated in Polytechnic’s independence.

USF will still lose $79 million in state funding plus $6 million already allocated for operations at the new College of Pharmacy and $18 million in expenses as Polytechnic’s Lakeland campus gains independence.

Senate leaders defend this injustice as equitable based on each school’s cash reserve fund and the resulting funding cuts, according to calculations by legislative staff.

The idea is to cut deeper at the schools with the largest savings accounts, yet USF does not have the largest pot of money. Florida State has the biggest reserve fund but is only targeted for a 22 percent budget cut -- half USF’s 44 percent reduction. Plus, none of the other universities lose millions in a breakup.

And, as PolitiFact Florida notes in reviewing a USF analysis, the Senate calculations figure the cuts will be spread out among USF’s four branches, thus lowering the percentage drop. In fact, only three will suffer, Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee, thus raising the stakes.

At Wednesday’s Senate Budget Committee hearing, Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormand, cited the University of Central Florida’s deeper cut in defense of USF’s. But at 34 percent, UCF’s number is 10 points lower than USF’s.

Equity or voodoo calculations?

Last week, Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, inserted language into the budget that would establish Polytechnic’s independence from USF immediately.

The Lake Wales senator intends to bypass the state university system’s Board of Governors, which set strict benchmarks for Polytechnic to achieve before gaining independence. That could have taken three to five years, certainly an undesirable outcome for a termed-out senator eager to build a legacy while still powerful enough to direct the charge.

That answers the question about why the reckless rush to establish the 12th state university. But in a year when the Senate proposes $400 million in higher education spending cuts, how can the creation of an additional university be defended as fiscally sound policy?

Fortunately, the House espouses a prudent course. Weatherford has stated he would not even consider the creation of 12th state university when steep budget cuts are on the table for USF.

“The House feels very strongly that universities should be treated equally,” he stated last week. “We shouldn’t single any one of them out and treat them differently when it comes to funding. We’re going to hold on very strong to that position.”

Manatee’s House members should unite behind this stand.

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Let the county’s legislative delegation know what you think.

Sen. Mike Bennett, 21st Senatorial District, (941) 727-6349; bennett.mike.web@flsenate.gov

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, 18th Senatorial District, (813) 233-4277, joyner.arthenia.web@flsenate.gov

Sen. Nancy Detert, 23rd Senatorial District, (941) 480-3547, detert.nancy.web@flsenate.gov

Rep. Greg Steube, District 67, (850) 488-6341, greg.steube@myfloridahouse.gov

Rep. Jim Boyd, District 68, (850) 488-4086, jim.boyd@myfloridahouse.gov

Rep. Ray Pilon, District 69, (941) 955-8077, ray.pilon@myfloridahouse.gov

Rep. Darryl Rouson, District 55, Democrat, Tallahassee, (850) 488-0925; St. Petersburg office, (727) 906-3200; darryl.rouson@myfloridahouse.gov

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