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Colleges win and lose in budget
Legislators hope a 5 percent increase in tuition will offset $114-million in cuts.
By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER and JENNIFER LIBERTO, Times Staff Writers
Published October 13, 2007
TALLAHASSEE -- Just like they did in May, lawmakers on Friday approved a state budget and sent it to Gov. Charlie Crist for final approval. But this time the 2007-08 budget is $1-billion lighter, and the 5 percent tuition hike tucked inside it no longer appears in danger of dying under Crist's veto pen.
The $70-billion budget slashes $114-million from public community colleges and four-year universities. Yet legislators voted to boost undergraduate in-state tuition by 5 percent starting this January, which will generate about $20-million in additional revenue for institutions per semester.
For a Florida resident attending the University of South Florida full time, the tuition hike amounts to $55 more per semester.
Lawmakers also gave institutions the green light to charge a technology fee, equal to 5 percent of tuition, starting in fall 2009. And they built in an annual adjustment for inflation -- a move that is mostly symbolic in its impact because tuition in recent years went up by 3 to 7 percent annually anyway.
The House voted 95-17 for the hike, with only Democrats voting against it; the Senate voted 31-2 in favor of the tuition bill. Local Republican Sens. Ronda Storms of Brandon and Mike Fasano of New Port Richey voted against it.
"I have serious reservations about moving education out of the reach of our citizens, and I think that's what we're doing," Storms said.
Crist said last week that he's unlikely to veto the tuition increase as he did this summer.
But the tuition hike approved Friday is in many respects just another tug in the ongoing power struggle between lawmakers and the constitutionally created board that oversees Florida's 11 universities. The Board of Governors decided last month to raise spring tuition by 5 percent, insisting it doesn't need legislative approval to raise tuition or charge fees.
The Legislature maintains it has tuition-setting power because it controls the state budget. The Board of Governors is asking a Leon County judge to confirm its authority.
State university system chancellor Mark Rosenberg hopes to have the issue resolved soon, but in the meantime he applauded lawmakers' vote and the governor's willingness to sign it into law.
He said their support shows they recognize universities are struggling financially -- with growing class sizes, inadequate professors' salaries, and one of the worst faculty-student ratios in the nation.
"What really matters is, the Legislature understands that we're at a crossroads and we're falling behind," Rosenberg said.
The budget cut and tuition hike capped a two-week legislative special session in which lawmakers had to cut $1-billion from this year's budget. Lawmakers passed a $71-billion budget in the spring, but subsequent state revenue projections showed the sluggish real estate market and other economic drivers would leave Florida far short of that.
State economists say the 2008-09 budget will have to shrink by at least another $1.5-billion, possibly more.
On Friday, lawmakers focused on the current year, passing a budget with reductions primarily from education and health care. The House voted 72-39 along party lines in favor of the budget, and the Senate voted for the budget 23-9, with Democrats voting against it.
Universities will see their budgets for this year fall by $84.3-million, or 3.6 percent, including about $10-million less for USF and its medical school. Community colleges' budgets dropped by $30-million, including $1.7-million less for Hillsborough Community College.
The state's prekindergarten program budget fell by $22-million, and K-12 schools will have $267-million less to spend. That's about $100 per student, a reduction of less than 2 percent.
KidCare, the subsidized health care for low-income children, actually got a $4-million boost. But Medicaid's budget is now a quarter-billion dollars less, and long-term Medicaid care programs such as nursing homes lost $90-million.
Democrats say the $1.1-billion in cuts is less painful than once anticipated only because Senate and House leaders pumped in tens of millions in one-time dollars that will disappear next year -- leaving organizations facing an even deeper financial hole.
They are particularly incensed that Senate leaders refused to look at ways of hiking future revenue, such as closing tax loopholes that cost the state tens of millions annually.
"We recognize there need to be some cuts," said Senate Minority Leader Steve Geller, a South Florida Democrat. "We're asking you to look at both sides of the ledger."
Another point of contention Friday was a bill that would, in future years, take tens of millions from a fund dedicated to alternative water supplies.
"Water is not just a nice thing to fund, water is vital," said Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland. "If this cut goes through as a permanent cut, we will never get more money for water."
That vote was 22-11 in the Senate and 71-42 in the House, with a few Republicans joining Democrats to vote against it.