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Tuition battle heads to court
A lawsuit says the Board of Governors, not the Legislature, can set state college tuition.
By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published July 7, 2007
Senator Bob Graham introduces special guest Jimmy Buffett to his study group at Harvard University's Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government. Graham's study group is a optional class offered to anyone who wants to come and is entitled "What every citizen needs to know to make democracy work for them".
[Times photo: ERIK JACOBS]
TALLAHASSEE - A powerful group led by former Florida Gov. Bob Graham filed suit Friday against the Legislature, asking a Leon County court to declare that tuition rates and other policymaking powers lie with the board created to oversee public universities.
Graham and the other plaintiffs, including former Florida State University president and onetime lawmaker Sandy D'Alemberte, want a judge to declare unconstitutional the statute 1001.705 that gives lawmakers authority to set the 11 colleges' tuition and fees.
The lawsuit, the latest in a long-running tussle over the state university system's leadership, asserts the Board of Governors has held the power to set tuition since its 2002 creation.
"The board has that authority, but they have been timid in exercising that power," said Graham, the Democratic former senator who fought to create the board. "If they don't exert that, they are violating the will of the people of Florida."
While the suit's emphasis is on tuition, its outcome could dramatically change many aspects of how Florida colleges are run, said plaintiff's attorney Robin Gibson of Lake Wales.
For example, the statute also gives lawmakers power to establish scholarship programs like Bright Futures. Graham's group is asking the court to declare "null and void" the entire statute.
Moreover, the suit maintains that a university governance bill passed this spring is unconstitutional because it gives the Legislature too much ultimate authority over areas such as degree and research programs.
But tuition is the plaintiffs' biggest beef, and the one that could most immediately affect students and families.
Graham's group contends the Legislature is violating the constitutional amendment that established the Board of Governors.
The amendment -- modeled after similar governing systems in California, Minnesota and Michigan -- states that the governor-appointed board "shall operate, regulate, control, and be fully responsible for the management of the whole system."
While it does not specifically cite the setting of tuition and fees, Graham said that power is an inherent and vital part of regulating the university system.
Legislators contend they have power over tuition because the amount colleges charge students affects the universities' budgets. Those budgets are set by the Legislature, as part of the state's overall budget.
"I don't think voters were trying to turn the Board of Governors into the fourth branch of government," Sen. President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, said in a terse statement Friday.
"This lawsuit is nothing more than an attempt to get unbridled tuition increases. God help our students if they win."
Florida's in-state undergraduate tuition rate, now about $2,200 a year, is among the lowest in the nation.
The Legislature this spring proposed a 5 percent instate undergraduate tuition hike for all universities, but Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed it.
Graham said the veto was not the sole impetus for the lawsuit. But there's no denying the veto and a projected $1-billion revenue shortfall for state agencies, including colleges, added a sense of urgency to the issue of university system control and funding.
The lawsuit is the latest development in a years-long tussle. The university system's governance structure has changed three times since 2001, resulting in legal disagreement and political wrangling.
For years, the governor-appointed Board of Regents oversaw universities. But in 1999, the regents upset elected officials by opposing their attempts to create additional medical and law schools.
So the Republican-led Legislature abolished the regents and created boards of trustees for each university, putting those boards under the authority of a new State Board of Education.
Graham, the Democratic former governor and then senator, then led a citizen initiative to create the Board of Governors. Voters approved it in 2002.
But then-Gov. Jeb Bush filled the board's 14 slots with mostly Republican allies, and the board delegated much of its power to individual university boards of trustees. It also continued to let the Legislature set tuition.
Graham and former state university system chancellor E.T. York filed suit in December 2004, asking the court to clarify the Board of Governors' powers.
Last year, the parties reached an agreement stating the Board of Governors' powers include setting tuition and fees.
But Board of Governors chairwoman Carolyn Roberts, a Bush appointee, told the Palm Beach Post last year that the board would continue to allow the Legislature to set tuition.
And leading lawmakers insisted the legal agreement would not change their power over tuition.
FSU president T.K. Wetherell, a former House speaker, is frustrated with the Board of Governors' unwillingness to assert itself.
"They're supposed to be our advocates," he said during a recent interview. "Where the hell are they?"
Roberts and state university system chancellor Mark Rosenberg declined comment Friday.
Spokesman Bill Edmonds said the board has "great interest" in the suit and will discuss it when it meets Tuesday in Orlando.
University of Florida president Bernie Machen said he thinks the Board of Governors will join the lawsuit.
"I think the Legislature, the governor and the board can work this out. We have to," Machen said. "It's just a shame we need a lawsuit to do it."
Staff writer Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3403 or email@example.com.