Crist veto pen skipped a line on tuition hikes

His staffers are scrambling to halt an increase for work force development program tuition.

Published May 31, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - When Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed 5 percent college tuition increases last week, he said he was looking out for students and families burdened by property insurance and taxes.

But not everyone was spared. The governor failed to veto 5 percent increases for community college work force development programs.

That means thousands of the poorest students could pay more for the skills to become a welder, nurse or dental hygienist.

Crist said Wednesday he is confident the problem will be fixed. "I think we're in good shape on it," said the governor, who is on a trade mission to Israel this week.

The omission has caused a scramble among staffers in the Governor's Office and the Department of Education, which oversees the work force development programs.

"It's just a technicality that got missed," said Vivian Myrtetus, a Crist spokeswoman. "The governor's intent from the beginning was that there would be no tuition increases."

Myrtetus said the budget was so sprawling that a staffer overlooked the part affecting community colleges.

Fixing the problem may be a challenge. The tuition increases were rolled into the general appropriation for community colleges, so it is not as simple as backing them out.

Myrtetus said the schools could revert back to their previous fee schedule, which does not include the increase.

"There's nothing specific yet, but we're definitely working on it, " education spokesman Tom Butler said Wednesday.

Jeanine Blomberg, the state's commissioner of education, has already reached out to community college officials.

George LeMieux, Crist's chief of staff, said he was confident the matter could be handled administratively. He said the amount of money involved was small, compared to the $71.5-billion budget as a whole.

Of the 300,000 students who attend community colleges each year, about 3 percent, or 9,000, enroll in work force development programs. The certificate programs vary in length and cost.

The complete nursing program at Pasco-Hernando Community College costs $2,592, so the 5 percent increase would add $130 to the cost.

Even though Crist had talks for weeks about eliminating the tuition increases, Pasco and other colleges were assuming the increase would go through, just as they have in years past.

"We're just going to have to let the dust settle," said Gail Brooks, Pasco's dean of work force development.

The missed veto is not the only problem facing Crist. The tuition veto that did go through has come under scrutiny from lawmakers, college officials and some students who supported the increase.

They question whether Crist had the authority to discard the increases because he cut so-called proviso language that explains how the money would be spent.

The Legislature crafted the budget that way to shield the tuition increase from cuts, but Crist said his lawyers said he was on firm ground.

"We're working with the universities now as far as what the authority is," state university chancellor Mark Rosenberg said Wednesday.

He said the money would have gone toward hiring more than 200 faculty members.

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.