Universities gird for battle

System leaders defy the governor and Legislature.

Published July 11, 2007

Facing up to half-a-billion dollars in budget cuts, and stinging from previous years' funding battles, Florida university system leaders Tuesday took several aggressive, politically risky measures - freezing freshman enrollment statewide, endorsing an undergraduate in-state tuition hike for spring, and joining a recent lawsuit that challenges the Legislature's power to set tuition.

The enrollment freeze and other cost-cutting measures were expected, given that projected state revenue shortfalls will force the 11 state universities to trim their budgets by anywhere from $200-million to $500-million over the next two years.

Far more significant and surprising was the Board of Governors' decision to challenge the power of Gov. Charlie Crist and the Legislature, a political shift that could significantly affect Florida colleges and students for generations to come.

The board voted Tuesday to raise undergraduate in-state tuition in the spring. That would defy Crist's recent veto of a 5 percent tuition hike.

And by supporting former Florida Gov. Bob Graham's recently filed lawsuit, the board that was established by a 2002 constitutional amendment seeks to once and for all define its authority.

"It's not suing friends or fighting with the Legislature or fighting with the governor," said Board of Governors member Charles Edwards. "Until there are answers to these questions about governance, we'll never know which way to go. If the court rules for the Legislature, I'm happy as can be. If they rule for us, I'm happy, too. But we need answers."

Last week, Graham and several others filed suit against the Legislature, asking a Leon County court to declare that tuition rates and other policymaking powers lie with the Board of Governors.

The group wants a judge to declare unconstitutional the statute 1001.705 that gives lawmakers authority to set the 11 colleges' tuition and fees and establish scholarship programs such as the popular Bright Futures.

Senate President Ken Pruitt expressed disappointment at the board's actions, saying in a news release that setting tuition is "the duty of the Legislature."

"Mark my word; we are going to fight to make sure the American dream of higher education is affordable for all students," said Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, in the release. "My message to the Board of Governors? We'll see you in court."

The board has struggled since its creation to define its authority while maintaining political harmony with lawmakers, who insist they have the power to set tuition because they create the state's annual budget.

The Legislature this spring proposed a 5 percent in-state undergraduate tuition increase for all universities, but Crist vetoed it.

The in-state undergraduate tuition rate, now about $2,200 a year, is among the lowest in the nation. Per-student funding has actually declined within the past years by 5 percent, from $8,663 to $8,220, according to an analysis by the chancellor's office. Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi now surpass Florida for per-student dollars.

University presidents say they cannot maintain quality undergraduate programs under those circumstances.

"Yo-yo financial management has characterized our system," said chancellor Mark Rosenberg. "No one would run their business the way we run our university system."

So Tuesday, the Board of Governors took action.

On Rosenberg's recommendation, the board voted to raise undergraduate in-state tuition by up to 5 percent. It also agreed to direct universities to consolidate programs and some branch campuses with low enrollment. And it'll freeze freshman enrollment at current levels for the next three years, starting in spring. That means it will be harder than ever to get into a state university.

Universities won't know until next month exactly how much they stand to lose as part of the statewide budget cuts, which come because of projected tax revenue shortfalls of as much as $1.2-billion for the current budget year.

But if their budgets are cut by the minimum 4 percent outlined by Crist, they would lose a total of $100-million this year and $100-million the next.

"We took major cuts in the '90s; we took major cuts in 2002 and 2003," said board chairwoman Carolyn Roberts. "Throughout it all, we kept the doors open, we found ways to graduate students. We will do everything we can to maintain access, but we definitely know quality is at risk. And I am not a fan of dead last."

Information from the Associated Press is included in this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3403 or svansickler@sptimes.com.