A proposal to withhold $25 million from the University of South Florida in a dispute over independence for the school’s Lakeland campus was dropped Wednesday by the Senate Budget Committee, which also moved to keep a Jefferson County prison open despite a plan by the Department of Corrections to shutter the facility, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.
The twin developments paved the way for a rare, unanimous vote by the panel to send the $70.8 billion budget for the coming fiscal year to the Senate floor, even as some Democrats said they would likely vote against the measure later if more changes weren’t made.
And the potential for friction even within the Republican majority remained. There are still divisions over the size of cuts to USF’s budget. But Tampa Bay-area lawmakers were celebrating the removal of the withholding provision, which would have only provided the $25 million to the school once it turned over all the property at its Lakeland campus for a new, independent Florida Polytechnic University.
Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa, called that move “a heck of a concession,” but said he still intended to try to bridge differences between the university and Senate leadership over the size of the budget cuts under the Senate plan.
USF contends that its reduction, which is the largest by dollar amount in the 11-university system, is far out of line with other institutions. Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander, who has for months clashed with USF leaders over Polytechnic, says that’s not so.
“I don’t want, in any way, USF to be harmed or my community to be harmed,” Norman said after the meeting.
The change was only approved after testy clashes between Tampa-area lawmakers like Norman, in his first appropriations meeting as a member of the Senate Budget Committee, and Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, on one side and Alexander, R-Lake Wales, and Higher Education Appropriations Chairwoman Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, on the other.
Norman bristled when Lynn suggested that some of the $400 million cut for universities, which Senate leaders say can be covered by reserves, was ammunition for the House-Senate conference process that will follow Senate approval of the budget.
“You don’t bargain futures like this, even in this appropriations process,” Norman said.
Eventually, Lynn lit into Norman for what she felt was an attack on the work of her committee’s staff.
“I have some problems with what you’re saying and I cannot sit still because I feel that you’re implying something about my staff and I really cannot tolerate that,” Lynn said.
“You can be as upset as you want,” Norman shot back. “I’m representing my community.”
Senate leaders say they considered the size of university reserves and other funding factors — instead of enrollment — when deciding how to carve up the cuts. Alexander argued that, because the cuts can be absorbed by the reserves, the argument that the budget is being balanced “on the backs of students” isn’t true.
“That’s not a factual statement, and it’s being made to inflame folks in an effort to protect what I believe is an indefensible policy of maintaining too-high cash balances in universities,” Alexander said.
But state law requires universities to hold at least 5 percent of their budgets in reserve, and several senators disagree with the formula on its merits.
“This is probably the worst message you could send to university presidents: Just spend your money, because they’re going to take it away if you don’t,” said Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Aventura.
The concerns at USF had been increased by the $25 million withholding, the latest chapter in a long-running feud between Alexander and the university over the fate of USF Polytechnic.
Alexander helped push a plan through the Board of Governors that would lead to the establishment of Florida Polytechnic as an independent institution — a proposal that would now be written into law by a budget conforming bill (SPB 7100).
Alexander had said that he didn’t trust USF to be a honest broker in working toward independence, and the $25 million was an incentive to make sure the idea went forward. After the budget meeting, he expressed confidence that the change would still take place.
“I think for any university to fly in the face of the entire Legislature would be a foolhardy decision,” Alexander said.