University lobbyist salaries remain resilient through recession

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After years of surviving layoffs, cutbacks in majors, skyrocketing enrollment and rising tuition, Florida state universities received some fantastic news from lobbyists in anticipation of the 2014 legislative session.

For the first time in years, lawmakers believe the state university system’s budget situation will improve next year, reports John Kennedy of the The Palm Beach Post.

The message of better times around the corner is particularly encouraging to high-profile lobbyists for the 12 Florida universities, shaken by years shrinking budgets.

“The results of the past five years have been devastating,” Tom Auxter tells the Post.

Auxter is the University of Florida philosophy professor and head of the United Faculty of Florida, the 7,000-member higher-education instructors and staff union.

“Maybe not everyone in the universities has been hit as hard as others,” Auxter adds. “But I don’t feel bad about university lobbyists. We need everybody involved in helping us bounce back.”

Resilience of college lobbyists leaves many to wonder if colleges asked students to bear the weight of university hardships, with those at the top of university administration relatively untouched.

Before implementing a modest cost-of-living pay increase last year, tuition at Florida universities had steadily climbed – up 72 percent in the past five years. The average tuition of $6,069 last year ranked them 41st highest of all nations’ public universities.

Between 2007 and 2011, enrollment at Florida universities grew to 329,737 students, an almost 10 percent increase, according to data from the State University System’s Board of Governors.

At the same time, faculty-to-student ratios also climbed a bit, but it was administrative positions that experienced the highest growth, with double-digit gains.

Some universities claim to scale back government relations budgets from 2007 to 2012, saying they cut lobbying budgets by nearly one-quarter. But an investigation by The Palm Beach Post found that the numbers of legislative lobbyists have not changed much in recent years.

Gov. Rick Scott renewed his focus on higher education salaries when an inspector general’s report showed college presidents earning between $144,000 and $630,000 last year. The report also shows more than 2,600 employees in Florida universities making more than $130,273, the amount of the governor’s salary (millionaire Scott has declined to take a salary while in office, opting to receive a penny a year).

State law caps college president salaries to $225,000 but is often augmented with donations and foundations among other sources. Some also register as lobbyists for their universities.

Sen. David Simmons said tough economic times might have put a higher value on college lobbyists.

“It’s the price that may have to be paid,” the Altamonte Springs Republican told The Post, a member of the Senate Education Committee and its budget equivalent.

“There is a fierce demand for state dollars, and it’s important for universities to have someone who can quickly explain what a program is or why specific dollars are needed,” Simmons added.

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.