Money for the projects would come from state liquor taxes.
By LUCY MORGAN
Published November 9, 2004
TALLAHASSEE - Lawmakers steered far more money to legislative leaders' pet projects last spring than the $30-million they publicly acknowledged.
They also quietly changed a law to keep money flowing to the projects forever.
Along with the $30-million for this year, legislators approved a separate bill that would require spending that much money every year for a chiropractic school at Florida State University, an Alzheimer's institute at the University of South Florida and a biomedical research center at the Department of Elder Affairs. The money would come from state liquor taxes.
Now that law is expected to be challenged in court by supporters of a 2002 constitutional amendment that created the state Board of Governors. They say it illegally pledges future appropriations without legislative approval and ignores the authority of the Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system.
"It's not constitutional," former university chancellor E.T. York said Monday.
A legal battle over the law would be the first attempt to have the courts clarify the Board of Governors' authority over the creation of new programs in higher education. The constitutional amendment creating the board won overwhelming support from voters, but York said the board has been ignored by Gov. Jeb Bush and state lawmakers.
Floridians for Constitutional Integrity, the group that got the amendment on the ballot, will sponsor the court challenge. U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who led the fight to re-establish a state board to oversee universities after the Board of Regents was abolished, is not involved in the lawsuit.
The group has hired former House Speaker Jon Mills and Tallahassee lawyers Dexter Douglass and Thom Rumberger.
By appropriating money for a chiropractic school and an Alzheimer's center that were not requested by the Board of Governors, York said, lawmakers assumed a responsibility the Constitution has given to the state board.
Under the new law, millions of dollars would flow to the three projects. The chiropractic school and biomedical research center were backed by Senate President Jim King of Jacksonville and named after his parents. The Alzheimer's center was sought by House Speaker Johnnie Byrd of Plant City and named after his father.
Many legislators were not aware of the details of the bill when it passed last spring.
"I didn't realize it until after the session was over," said incoming House Speaker Allan Bense, R-Panama City. "I missed it, and a lot of other people missed it as well."
Some members of the Board of Governors say they must approve the chiropractic school before the school can offer degrees.
The Board of Governors did not include the chiropractic school in its proposed budget approved in October. That led FSU president T.K. Wetherell to ask legislative leaders to clarify the situation because the university has been moving ahead with plans for the new school.
"It would appear that the Board of Governors, by taking this action, is asserting that Florida State University cannot proceed with the School of Chiropractic program in any way without their specific approval although it has been authorized in recent legislation," Wetherell wrote in letters to King and Byrd on Oct. 28.
King and Byrd have not responded to the letter.
Carolyn Roberts, chair of the Board of Governors, said Monday the chiropractic school will not be able to award degrees unless the board approves the program.
FSU can use the money for other purposes until the chiropractic school exists, according to the law.
Roberts also questions the constitutionality of the law and said she has never seen university programs created this way.
"I want the speaker and the president to know that we are team players, but people expect us to manage and govern the university system," Roberts said.
Legislators argue that planning for the chiropractic school began before the Board of Governors was created and does not require the board's approval.
The relationship between the statewide governing board and the individual boards that oversee each university has not been clearly established.
John Thrasher, a former House speaker who is chairman of the FSU trustees, predicted that relationship will be clarified by legislators next spring.
The new law that would provide a specific source of revenue for the projects directs the state's chief finance officer to cut checks directly to the universities instead of making the payments subject to annual appropriations.
Most projects have to go back to the Legislature each year for money.
The proposed chiropractic school at FSU got a $9-million appropriation this year and would continue getting the same amount in future years.
Another $15-million approved for the Johnnie B. Byrd Sr. Alzheimer's Research Center and $6-million given to the James and Esther King Biomedical Research Program also would continue to be paid each year.