Judge backs Legislature in tuition-setting debate

Published January 4, 2008

TALLAHASSEE - Legislature 1, Board of Governors 0.

Leon County's chief circuit judge dealt a blow Thursday to the board charged with overseeing Florida's 11 public universities.

Chief Judge Charles Francis said the board, former Gov. Bob Graham and other plaintiffs had no standing to challenge the Legislature's authority to set tuition.

Francis gave the plaintiffs 30 days to show specific evidence of how the Legislature's control over tuition prevents the Board of Governors from "performing its constitutional duties."

Senate President Ken Pruitt called the ruling a victory for students. "However, this is just the first skirmish in a long battle," he said.

Board of Governors chairwoman Carolyn Roberts, an appointee of former Gov. Jeb Bush, said she is "disappointed," but optimistic that the board will prevail.

"I am grateful that his ruling leaves the door open for the board to show that it does have a right to be heard on these issues," Roberts said.

Graham and longtime former congressman Lou Frey Jr. initiated the lawsuit in June, shortly after Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed a proposed 5 percent tuition increase for undergraduates. In that suit, they asked the court to declare that tuition rates and other policymaking powers lie with the board, which voters created by constitutional amendment in 2002.

That amendment states that the board "shall operate, regulate, control, and be fully responsible for the management of the whole university system."

Tuition, the board maintains, is a crucial element in that management because it affects universities' budgets.

The Legislature, meanwhile, points to its budgetmaking duties and the state law that gives it the power to set "tuition and fees."

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, including former Florida State University president and onetime lawmaker Sandy D'Alemberte, asked the judge to declare that statute unconstitutional.

Francis' ruling comes as the board takes on the Legislature in a separate legal matter.

The board is siding with the American Civil Liberties Union in its challenge to the portion of a 2006 state law that bans the use of private and federal dollars for research travel to Cuba or other "terrorist states."

Staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at svansickler@sptimes.com or 813 226-3403.