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Higher education projects fail House’s strict new budget test

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The Florida House’s proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning on July 1 could make life uncomfortable for the state’s colleges and universities.

The budget — agreed upon in principle, and due in bill form this week — will call for something like $2.2 billion in spending cuts, according to House leaders, for a total expenditure of $81.2 billion.

Among the biggest targets — because they rank among the single most significant expenses outside entitlements like Medicaid — is member projects, Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo said last week.

These are programs that members hope to bring home to their constituents, and a lot of them wind up at universities and colleges.

“Some of them might be parochial in nature. Some of them might not really have a state impact,” Trujillo said during a news briefing.

“We were very aggressive in identifying those and removing them from the budget,” he said.

“Going forward, one of the biggest rules changes this year under Speaker Corcoran is that we no longer have recurring member projects,” he continued.

“If you add $100, $200, $300 million into the budget this year and you do it in recurring funds, next year you have to pay that plus every member’s new project. By just changing that one decision — to change it from recurring to nonrecurring — you don’t load up the budget for legislatures that come after you.”

That’s the stated reason for killing higher education projects including $5 million for the University of West Florida’s office of economic development; $3.9 million from a performing arts center at the University of Central Florida; and $300,000 for the Charles Hilton endowed professorship at Florida State University.

The House is intent on ending the time-honored tradition of sneaking projects into the budget during conference committee negotiations. Rules change forced members to apply early for inclusion in the budget.

“From a cultural perspective and from a transparency perspective, these projects can’t just show up once a budget is printed, and everybody’s asking, ‘How did they get here? Who put them in here? What happened?’” Trujillo said

What about jobs the cuts might eliminate? What about endowed professorships funded by the state?

That prospect might force universities and their support foundations to choose between high executive salary and travel budgets and academic programs, Trujillo said. House leaders have been highly critical of what they consider lavish spending by these foundations.

The test, Trujillo said, is this: “Is that a state function?”

“Our job is to fund the base. Universities’ job is to make decisions” about specific programs, he said.

“Where we get into trouble is when we start arbitrarily picking, ‘We want to fund this professor but not that professor, this project but not that project.’ That’s when we start losing control. Once we lose control and start sending money without any accountability, we end up in the positions that we’ve seen,” Trujillo said.

The House will demand “complete transparency” from colleges’ and universities’ direct support organizations, including booster clubs that pay rich salaries to athletics coaches. “You should be able to know as a taxpayer, as a contributor, as an alumnus, where you’re money’s going, how they’re using it,” he said.

“For years, you’ve used taxpayer money to pay for fundraisers. Those fundraisers send money to your foundation. That foundation has absolutely no transparency and no scrutiny. We’re no longer doing that.”

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

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