Senate budget takes aim at state colleges

Published On: Mar 27 2014 09:04:19 PM EDT

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a $74.9 billion budget Thursday that would increase spending on public education, bankroll water projects in the Everglades system -- and send a shot across the bow of the Florida College System.

The plan (SB 2500) passed the committee unanimously a day after the House budget-writing panel approved a $75.3 billion spending blueprint. A compromise version will be hammered out by conference committees that will meet after the bills pass their respective chambers.

The differences between the two plans are relatively small, according to lawmakers. The Senate would spend more on higher education and water projects in South Florida, while the House would fund public education at a higher level and spend more to help preserve the state's springs.

The House plan also would plow hundreds of millions of dollars more into education-construction projects.

But the Senate panel spent much of its time on a relatively minute part of the budget --- a proposed $3.5 million cut to state colleges' four-year degree programs, with the money funneled instead into state universities. The amendment, one of more than 40 that gained approval Thursday, dealt with approximately 0.0046 percent of the overall budget proposal but dominated the discussion of the spending plan.

It also marks the latest chapter in an ongoing dispute between colleges and universities about whether the State Board of Education has been too quick to grant four-year degree programs to state colleges, which in the past were known as community colleges. Several senators have said universities, overseen separately by the Board of Governors, are facing competition from the colleges, which are only supposed to offer four-year degrees to cater to local workforce needs.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said there were now 175 four-year programs offered at state colleges, which are primarily supposed to focus on offering two-year degrees and preparing some students for universities.

That duplication could undercut the state's goals in higher education, Negron said.

"I think we have great universities, but I want to see them get to elite level, where we have universities in Florida that are thought of with the University of Virginia, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (and the) University of Michigan," he told reporters after the meeting. "And we can't do that if we're running two systems that are overlapping."

Negron also pointed out that the money is a fraction of the nearly $1.2 billion in funding for state colleges, which would still see an overall increase when other spending is factored in.

The goal of the budget language, supporters said, was to prompt the colleges to select and get rid of the degrees they need the least. But Joe Pickens, a former lawmaker and current president of St. Johns River State College, said that might not happen.

"The funding cut that is across the board impacts both the programs that I think the chair has acknowledged that we should and could have, as well as those that he intends to impact, that he has expressed an opinion that we shouldn't have," Pickens said.

In addition to the budget measure, the panel also approved a separate bill (SB 1148) that would strip the State Board of Education of its ability to authorize four-year degrees. Instead, state colleges would have to get permission from the Legislature to offer new four-year programs.

Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who is fighting Negron for the Senate presidency in the future, slammed the proposal. He said it would lead to lawmakers protecting their pet colleges and could run counter to the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott's drive to lower tuition costs.

"When our governor made a bold request to try to find institutions that would give a $10,000 college degree, I didn't see any universities step forward and say that (they would do it)," Latvala said. "It was our state colleges that stepped forward to do that."

Latvala was the sole vote against the separate bill. But even lawmakers who voted for the bill raised concerns about the budget amendment, which passed on a clearly divided voice vote.

"It appears to me that we're going after this thing with a meat cleaver when we really ought to have a scalpel," said Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla. "And so my question is, why are we penalizing those colleges that are, for lack of a better word, behaving the way we'd like for them to? Why not penalize those that are excessive in their numbers of degrees or have overlap, that sort of thing?"

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, was noncommittal Thursday about the college proposal.

"I think it's worthy of consideration," he said, "but I'd say it's way too early to determine whether or not we would support it."

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