UF fee likely dead in Senate panel

Published April 14, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - University of Florida officials trying to raise millions for more professors and career counselors have hit a wall in the Senate, where the leader of a key committee refuses to hear UF's proposal to charge undergraduates $500 more each semester.

"No," said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach. "It doesn't have the votes."

Her higher education appropriations committee has five members, three of whom say they will not support the fee. That's Lynn, fellow Republican Jim King of Jacksonville and Democrat Charlie Justice, the freshman from St. Petersburg.

Bill sponsor Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville, and fellow freshman Sen. Jeremy Ring, a South Florida Democrat, support the fee.

But even Ring conceded, "It's time to move on."

A companion House bill was rewritten this week and is moving toward the chamber's floor, giving fee supporters hope. But House approval won't matter if the Senate bill stalls.

"We're aware that it's not going to the committee," said UF spokesman Steve Orlando. "But we're going to keep working with the members."

Brave face aside, time is running out. Lynn's committee meets Tuesday but isn't scheduled to vote on the bill. The last day for committee meetings is a week later, but so far the higher education committee isn't scheduled to meet.

UF president Bernie Machen estimates the per-semester fee would have generated $37-million a year when fully in place.

Machen wants the money to hire 200 additional faculty members and 100 additional career counselors. He says the resulting smaller class sizes and additional course offerings would help vault UF into the top 10 of public institutions in the nation.

A House education council early this week endorsed an overhauled version of the proposal that was the result of negotiations with the governor's staff and representatives from the Bright Futures and Florida Prepaid scholarship programs.

The amended version would allow university trustees to establish the fee at UF only, and 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 which time undergraduates would be charged the full $500 per semester.

UF would waive the fee for financially needy students, and students with existing Florida Prepaid contracts would not have to pay the new fee. Starting this fall, Florida Prepaid could offer families contracts that cover the fee.

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