Fla. Democrats look to make issue of cuts to higher education

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Democrats have started a push to make higher-education cuts and the state’s tuition burdens an issue in state legislative campaigns, even as one of their chief spokesmen in the effort heads to the Florida Supreme Court seeking more authority for the Florida Board of Governors to set its own costs, reports the News Service of Florida.

At a news conference Wednesday in Tallahassee, former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who also served as governor, joined Florida Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith and a group of university students to blast a $300 million cut in the current year’s budget for the state’s 12 universities. Legislative leaders have said the cut is a one-time reduction.

“We cannot continue down this course if we aspire to be a state that will be seen by young people as the place in which they want to plant their personal flag,” Graham said at the press conference.

Within moments of the press conference’s conclusion, several legislative candidates had issued press releases figuratively standing with Graham as Democrats look to narrow the GOP’s supermajorities in the state House and Senate. The party is planning to distribute flyers calling attention to the $300 million cuts and hope to highlight their effects on escalating tuition rates.

“We have demonstrably decided that it is better for this generation of young men and young women to pay more for their education proportionally than we ever did, for them to come out of universities and colleges owing more money,” Smith said.

Graham said the state has gone from a system in which the state pays about 75 percent of the cost of a student’s higher education to a system where the state picks up about 40 percent of the tab. Most of the difference has been picked up by students, Graham said.

At the same time, Republicans have stressed that the state’s tuition rates are among the lowest in the nation. Gov. Rick Scott has repeatedly pushed for the board of governors to rein in universities using the state’s “differential tuition” law to attempt to raise tuition by as much as 15 percent, saying that wasn’t the appropriate response to the legislative cuts.

“I think that the easiest thing is to just say let’s raise the cost of living in our state,” Scott told the board in June. “But unfortunately, there’s a day of reckoning. At some point, we can’t afford it.”

And Graham is also part of a group suing the state to try to give the board more authority to set its own tuition rates. Oral arguments on that case are scheduled for Thursday.

The former governor conceded that tuition rates are likely to rise at colleges and universities. But he said the state’s contribution should be high as well, something he said was common in states with higher tuition than Florida.

“We’re essentially using these increases not to supplement, to add to the quality, but to supplant for the money which historically has come from the state,” Graham said.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.