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UF's fee proposal gets a boost

A House council endorses an overhauled version of the $500-per-semester proposal. A governor's aide urges caution.

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published April 11, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - The University of Florida's controversial $500 fee proposal lives on.

UF's push to charge undergraduates up to $1,000 more each year got a boost Tuesday when a House education council endorsed an overhauled version of the proposal - a crucial step in the bill's difficult road toward the desk of Gov. Charlie Crist.

The House version is the result of negotiations and talks between lawmakers, the governor's staff, and representatives from the Bright Futures and Florida Prepaid scholarship programs, said Rep. David Mealor, who thinks that gives it a better shot at survival.

"I think this addresses a lot of the concerns," said Mealor, a Central Florida Republican.

Inverness Rep. Charles Dean's bill, as amended, would allow university trustees to establish the fee at UF only.

It would be implemented gradually between fall 2008 and fall 2012. During that time, Bright Futures would cover the fee just as it does now for things like athletic and health programs.

Bright Futures would not cover the fee starting in fall 2012. By then, incoming undergraduates would be charged the full $500 per semester.

UF would waive the fee for financially needy students, and for Florida Prepaid students who enter UF prior to 2012 with a previously purchased contract that doesn't include the fee.

Starting in July, families could buy new Florida Prepaid plans that include the UF fee. Florida Prepaid would not have to cover the fee for families with existing contracts who end up sending their children to UF.

UF president Bernie Machen estimates the per-semester fee would generate $37-million a year when in place at the maximum $500 level.

As part of his bid to vault UF into the nation's top 10 list of public institutions, Machen would use the revenue to hire 200 additional faculty members and 100 additional career counselors.

But the push to establish the "academic enhancement fee" seemed doomed from the start, with Crist vowing before the session even began to veto any additional college fees.

Adding to UF's political difficulties: Representatives from the Bright Futures and Florida Prepaid voiced grave concerns about how such a fee would affect students enrolled in those popular programs.

Hence the negotiations with all parties to create a bill that addressed their worries, Mealor said.

"Everything in this has now been shared, been brought forward, to the Executive Office," Mealor said, referring to the governor's office. "And they are on board."

George LeMieux, chief of staff for Crist, confirmed that he and legislative affairs director Towson Fraser have met with Mealor.

Still, LeMieux cautioned: "I think the governor has concerns about any fee. We'll take a look at it, though."

The proposal still could run into trouble on the Senate side, where bill sponsor Sen. Steve Oelrich is vowing to take a "position of strength."

In other words, he might not be willing to change his bill to match the House's more politically palatable version.

Oelrich said Tuesday afternoon that he had not yet seen the latest version of Dean's bill, but the idea of putting the fee off until 2008 rather than starting it this coming fall worries him. So does the gradual implementation over the following four years.

"We're looking for a shot in the arm here," said Oelrich, R-Gainesville. "Not something so gradual."

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 850 224-7263 or svansickler@sptimes.com.