Higher ed agreement cements budget deal

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House and Senate lawmakers agreed on a sweeping plan to create an independent Florida Polytechnic University and slash university spending by $300 million, paving the way for an on-time ending to the legislative session, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

The agreement on higher education funding, and Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander’s insistence on writing the independent Florida Polytechnic into law, resolved the final major hurdle on a state budget for the year beginning July 1 that will likely land at around $70 billion.

Alexander, R-Lake Wales, and House Appropriations Chairwoman Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, said the final size of the package hadn’t yet been calculated.

Florida Polytechnic will become the 12th state university on July 1, after months of pressure by Alexander to break off the Lakeland campus of the University of South Florida into its own institution. The Board of Governors laid out a series of benchmarks for Polytechnic to achieve on the road to independence.

Alexander has pushed to write the Senate plan into law, saying that he does not trust the leadership of USF to carry out the plan. Alexander and USF President Judy Genshaft have frequently clashed over independence for Polytechnic.

But Chancellor Frank Brogan said the plan approved by the Legislature would actually create a longer lead-time for the new institution to become independent and accredited — because it could not seek accreditation as part of USF, as it would under the Board of Governors’ roadmap. That will likely take four years — instead of two under the governors’ plan.

“The good news is, both approaches get to the same destination,” Brogan said.

Grimsley and Alexander also agreed on a complicated formula to decide how to split up $300 million in onetime cuts for the 11 existing universities, Polytechnic, and two other USF satellites.

Lawmakers want the universities to respond by drawing on their reserves.

The original size of the cut, first hatched by the Senate, hit USF in what critics said was a disproportionate way. Some critics said Alexander was trying to exact revenge on USF, but the Senate said the cuts were based on the size of each university’s reserves.

Under the new plan, half of the cuts will be based on university reserves. Another $100 million will be portioned out based on the state funding for a university, and the final $50 million will be based on a university’s available tuition funding.

“They aren’t all the same,” Alexander said in trying to explain why the complicated formula was necessary.

The new division would hit USF with a $45 million reduction, not counting the $5 million cut for Polytechnic. Florida State University would take the largest reduction, at more than $65.8 million, followed by the University of Central Florida at $52.6 million. No other institution would see a cut of greater than $40 million.

Some of the universities will also get at least some of the cut back in the form of state funding in other parts of the budget or by raising tuition.

“Of course, cuts are cuts,” Brogan said. “But the proportionality test is met, I think. … It took a rather complicated approach, but they seem to have ironed that out to everybody’s general satisfaction.”

House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican who had fiercely opposed the first round of cuts to USF, praised the new deal in a statement.

“We went from a devastating 60 percent cut to a restoration that will enable our university to move forward,” Weatherford said. “Thanks to the hard work and strong voices of many, we were able to shift the tide.”

Combined with the plan is a reduction in Senate funding that will no longer allow lawmakers in the upper chamber to pay a lower health-care premium than some state employees. The change will not be spelled out in law but handled internally, lawmakers said.

“Senate leadership felt strongly … that senators shouldn’t have a better deal than career service state workers,” Alexander said.

The House chose not to go along with the policy.

“I don’t feel like I can make that decision,” Grimsley said. “That’s something that the membership needs to discuss.”

No other employee’s premiums would rise, but state workers also would not see a pay raise.

The final number of positions eliminated by the agreement wasn’t immediately available.

The deal should give lawmakers enough time to review the budget for the required 72 hours and approve it Friday, the scheduled finale for the session. Alexander and Grimsley still have to reach agreements on a series of bills tied to the budget, but that legislation doesn’t face the same deadline as the actual spending plan.

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.