Proposed budget cut to USF stirring opposition

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Members of the House and Senate pushed back Tuesday against a Senate budget cut to higher education that would hit the University of South Florida hardest — payback, opponents say, for the university’s coolness toward independence for its Lakeland campus, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

The Senate budget would slice $400 million from the state’s university system, including tens of millions of dollars from each university’s state funding, under the theory that the schools should instead draw on their reserves. But the plan takes the most from USF, and a related bill (SB 7100) holds back another $25 million until the university turns over all USF Polytechnic property to a newly-independent Florida Polytechnic University.

Getting independence for the school has been a chief goal of Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, who is in his final year as a legislator. Alexander pushed a gradual independence plan for Polytechnic through the Board of Governors, but says he no longer has confidence in USF to carry out the plan.

USF leaders have tried to bring attention to the cut, noting that the total hit to its budget would be $103.8 million, or $78.8 million once the held-back funds are returned. Among the other 10 universities, only the University of Central Florida ($76.9 million) and the University of Florida ($72.7 million) face reductions of more than $60 million, according to a comparison of the cuts prepared by USF.

“USF has great friends in the Florida Legislature, and we will rely on them to ensure that state allocations are equitable to this university, and that higher education is recognized for its role in galvanizing Florida’s economy,” USF President Judy Genshaft said in a university press release.

House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, took to Twitter on Tuesday to blast the plan. “Good news is that we have a bicameral Legislature,” he tweeted.

Speaking to reporters after the House’s session Tuesday, Weatherford again slammed the idea and suggested his chamber would resist it.

“I think the idea of a cut that treats one university different than the rest of them is unacceptable, and I don’t think the House is going to go for it,” Weatherford said.

Opposition was already brewing in the Senate, where Sen. Mike Fasano said he would try to amend the provision when it hit the floor.

“This is one person, one senator that is using his power to go after a great university because he did not get what he wanted,” Fasano said. “It is vindictiveness at its worst.”

Sen. Paula Dockery, a Lakeland Republican who has often clashed with Alexander, also argued the cut was Alexander’s attempt to exact vengeance on USF.

“While I think it’s a very serious threat, I’m not too fearful that that will see its way through the entire process,” she said.

Alexander argued that the size of a university’s cut was decided based on its cash reserves — not because of his clash with USF over the Polytechnic campus. And he noted that the $25 million being held back would be returned to the school once it carried out the mandates in the conforming bill.

“I’m not interested in hurting the first student anywhere, but I believe that the Board of Governors’ decision to create a fully independent Poly needs to happen,” Alexander said. “It needs to happen now.”

He also brushed aside Weatherford’s complaint.

“And they’ve certainly taken budget decisions that I could single out and say ‘They will not stand,’ but that’s not productive to the process,” Alexander said.

Asked about the uproar, Senate President Mike Haridopolos said the Senate was simply trying to follow the Board of Governor’s lead on granting Polytechnic independence and noted the universities’ reserves.

“The savings accounts that exist in these universities are quite high,” Haridopolos 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.