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Millions possible for small colleges

Gov. Jeb Bush will push $104.5-million for community colleges. Cautious legislators say they'll do what they can.

JONI JAMES
Published January 16, 2004

Looking to undo budget cuts that shut out some 35,000 people from Florida community colleges this year, Gov. Jeb Bush on Thursday pledged to push state lawmakers to accommodate them all with an extra $104.5-million next year.

The governor's proposal, billed by college officials as a 7.6 percent increase in operating funds, would allow the state's 28 colleges to take all the students turned away this year plus some more.

Students would pay 5 percent more for tuition, or roughly $45.44 per credit hour.

Bush also proposed spending $6.4-million, or 10 percent more, for five pioneering community colleges, including St. Petersburg College, that offer a limited number of four-year bachelor's degree programs.

Community college officials were giddy at the prospect.

"I've been in the system for 18 years, and we've never had this kind of support from a governor before," said Chancellor J. David Armstrong. "We've always had respect but never seen it in terms of dollars, and that's the ultimate measure of respect."

St. Petersburg College president Carl Kuttler said he hoped the governor's proposal lets him cut the waiting list for high-demand programs such as nursing.

"It feels like a reward for serving the people of Florida during all these tight budget years," Kuttler said. "We're just absolutely thrilled."

Bush's plan, however, is far from a done deal. Key legislators praised the plan, which is extremely ambitious when new dollars are scarce. And it likely will require a significant amount of Bush's political capital to succeed.

"I applaud and commend the governor for his vision for the future of community colleges," said Senate Budget Chairman Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie. "I'm absolutely thrilled and appreciate it. I just hope the Legislature is going to be able to follow through with it."

Bush's proposal would devour nearly two-thirds of the $160-million in new funds the state is expected to have in 2004-05 to spend on recurring expenses such as running community colleges, state prisons or health care for the poor.

For example, state economists have predicted Florida needs an extra $526-million next year for Medicaid to maintain current service levels.

That means Bush, who unveils his full state budget proposal Tuesday, will have to propose cuts elsewhere in state services to balance the budget without raising taxes. At least some of the new money would come from students paying more. Bush's proposed tuition increase would raise $20.9-million of the $104.5-million he's seeking for the colleges.

But Bush indicated earlier this month that he saw boosting community college funding as a key priority for the state's fiscal health.

Indeed, the state's 28 institutions have seen their political power and prestige swell in recent years as they have become more nimble at responding to the needs of the state's work force, such as the nursing shortage.

With enrollment topping 888,000, nearly one in 20 Florida residents is enrolled in a community college class during a given year.

Bush said the state needs to reverse the damage the colleges suffered during this year's budget, when funding was cut $11-million even as the colleges took on more students.

"They do phenomenal work for a per-student allocation that is very low," Bush said. "Of the public services that exist that state government participates in funding, the community college system is the one I probably most admire in terms of delivery of something, a service, that is important to the broadest number of people at the lowest possible price."

Bush's plan also responds to colleges' long-standing request for more money for construction or campus renovation. He proposes spending $31-million to match private donations to colleges for buildings as well as scholarships or academic programs.

And he recommends that the Legislature give community colleges the ability to raise students' building fees from $1 per credit hour to as much as 10 percent of the price of tuition.

However, Bush's proposal would limit colleges next year to no more than a doubling of the fee to $2 per credit hour.

- Joni James can be reached at 850 224-7263 or jjames@sptimes.com

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