JD Alexander’s audacious misdirection

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Pay no attention to what is going on over here… look at how bad it is over there!

“Oh, please Senator Alexander, treat us like everyone else.  Just cut our budget 30%.  Cripple us instead of decapitating us. We’re fine with you chopping $50 million from our budget, just not $104 million.”

Wait, what?

You have to hand it to JD Alexander, if only for his audacity.  It is widely accepted that he hates the current USF leadership.  It is widely accepted that he will do whatever he can to create a legacy for himself by creating a new state university in Lakeland.  He has already attempted to bully USF into spinning Polytechnic off immediately.  It didn’t work.  He then went to the State Board of Governors — you know, the group constitutionally responsible for governing higher education in Florida.  He wanted immediacy, they gave him a well thought out path to independence.  Seemed like a sensible middle road between what should happen and what the political hammer of the Senate Budget Committee chairman could force to happen.  Everyone goes home unhappy.  Or not.  I guess JD isn’t going to get his independent Florida Polytechnic University immediately after all.

This brings us back to budget cuts.  When the Senate revealed its budget this week, the State University System was dealt a $400 Million slashing.  This in itself should be a huge cause for alarm.  A siren call to action, not just for students, University employees and the hundreds of thousands of Florida residents who depend on SUS for livelihood in one way or another, but for all Floridians and those who care about our state’s economic reputation and viability.

Yet the draconian cuts received almost no direct attention.  You see, a disproportionate amount of the cuts were aimed at matador Alexander’s mortal enemy.  USF would receive a 58% reduction in state revenue.  No other university came close.

Suddenly, when stacked up against USF, the fact that our flagship universities would receive 26 and 22 percent cuts is palatable.  Think about that for a second.  UF and FSU, which have been around since the 1850s and generate tens of Billions in economic activity for our state are on the chopping block for a quarter of their state funding and there’s no attention being paid because USF is singled out, vindictively, unfairly.

JD’s a jerk.  He hates Judy Genshaft and USF.  Look at what he’s doing to their funding…

Not a peep about the catastrophe of a $400 million dollar cut to state university funding.  Well, maybe a peep – but nobody can hear it because of all those Bulls shouting.  If that noise ever dies down, there may be some attention paid to the damage being done to the university system.  There should be.  But that isn’t the end of the story.

You see, once all of that energy has dissipated, once JD makes “concessions” on the budget, the air will go out of the balloon.  The fight and the attention will go somewhere else.  And that may be exactly what JD wants.  Exhaust your enemy’s resources in one area while pressing forward toward your true goal.  How very Sun Tzu of you, Senator.

But you can’t fool me. 500 words later, I am finally getting to the point.  So, back to what I wanted to talk about. As John Romano points out, this smells Machiavellian.  Not that I would know what a 16th century Italian would smell like, but you get the point.  It is a double reverse.  First, focus on singling out USF, if there is any energy left, deal with giant cuts to higher education.  Don’t even worry about my little ol’ bill over here

Yes, look at that.  A separate bill to immediately grant independence to USF Poly and create a 12th state university, Florida Polytechnic.  Hmm, just what JD wanted in the first place.  As noted in the Times:

“The bill was sprung on unsuspecting lawmakers minutes before the start of a late-afternoon higher education budget meeting… Senators discussed the bill for about 15 minutes. Only a few spoke.”

Forget that Board of Governors process.  Forget that it hasn’t even really been established that we need a new state university.  All it takes is 15 minutes at the end of a budget hearing and poof! you may have a new state university.  Here’s the best part – the matadors are still sticking the bull because USF would retain faculty, student and administrative costs while Poly would get property, account balances, appropriations and even foundation money from USF.

Can something be done?  Gee, it would be nice if the citizens of Florida could get together and say that they wanted a university system insulated from petty personal politics, even if only slightly.  What?  We did?  …

The Constitution of the State of Florida was amended in 2002 (by a popular vote of over 60%) to create a unified governance structure for state universities.  The Board of Governors was formed in 2003 to be that governance structure and manage and regulate the system.  That’s right, that pesky board that wouldn’t bow to the mighty whim of Senator Alexander the Great was created precisely for that purpose.  It worked.  Maybe.  Florida may have actually learned its lesson.  We’ve been here before.

Largely, the amendment was a response to the ridiculousness of the 2000 legislative session.  The “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” coalition that formed to birth two new state-funded law schools that year (FAMU and FIU) was the epitome of legislative legacy building through state appropriations.  Almost a blueprint for JD.  For those of us who were around in 2000, we know that there was no public outcry due to a dearth of lawyers.  There was no shortage of billboard and bus advertising that needed to be rectified.  No matter.  There were two powerful legislative coalitions that wanted to bring the bacon home – and then stamp their faces on it. The state ended up with two more campuses to fund and hundreds more lawyers to choose from when they discover chinese drywall or get burned by McDonald’s coffee.

The moves were so unjustifiable in 2000 that it led to the aforementioned constitutional amendment.  Even in a boom economy, it was seen as misuse of public funds.  In 2012, it is practically criminal to waste state resources like this and do it by subverting the will of the people.

So what would the new school look like?  The allocation for the new Florida Polytechnic University would be $33 million.  You can build a cutting-edge higher education campus from scratch on $33 million?  Really?  The University of Florida spent $56 million on UTILITIES ALONE this year.  In fact, UF spent about $38 million on clothing for students.  Clothing.  Come on.  Again, the Times puts it best:

“Now, Florida Polytechnic would be born this year with a $32.7 million budget but no accreditation, buildings or students.”

$33 million is just about enough to get a big, fat, fancy entrance sign – probably with JD’s name on it in bright lights.  But in the end, if his name is big enough and the lights are bright enough, that may be what the matador wanted from the beginning.  His misdirection ploy will have worked. JD University will live, even if it is only a sign in a cow pasture on the side of I-4 between Tampa and Orlando.

Via Matt Spence and cross-posted at The Spencerian.

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.