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Medical, law schools racing to floor votes

A mix of cash and clout and an atmosphere of compromise among politicians may mean the time is right for setting up three professional schools.

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Prospects are stronger than ever that Florida will get two new law schools and a new medical school.

Gov. Jeb Bush says they are all "worthy ideas," although he and legislative leaders publicly contend they are uncommitted on all or some of the proposals. However, the bills that would establish the three professional schools have picked up speed and are moving quickly in the final days of the session.

The House is poised to vote today on a new medical school at Florida State University, a pet project for Speaker John Thrasher, an FSU alum. When it came before the full House Tuesday for debate, no one offered a peep of protest.

"Maybe there is a pretty good consensus," Thrasher said afterward.

In the Senate, new law schools for Florida A&M University and Florida International University were approved by a final committee Tuesday and are ready for a vote by the full chamber. Legislation for the FSU medical school also is working its way through Senate committees.

The fate of the schools will not be known until the last-minute horse-trading is completed before the Legislature adjourns May 5. The House does not have the $5-million to start the law schools in its proposed budget, but Thrasher said Tuesday that he is still open to the plan. The Senate did not include $39-million for the FSU medical school in its spending plan, but Senate President Toni Jennings has not taken a public position.

The long-running efforts for the new professional schools could fail again this year, as they have in the past. But a combination of cash, clout and compromise indicate conditions are ripe for a deal.

"There's no connection whatsoever," said a smiling Sen. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, who is a sponsor of the law schools bill and supports the new medical school. "That's my story and I'm sticking to it."

Already, Democrats are maneuvering to try to share credit for the new schools with Republicans who control the Legislature and the Governor's Mansion.

House Minority Leader Les Miller of Tampa took the rare step Tuesday of asking for -- and winning -- a Democratic caucus position in support of the new law schools.

Miller, who is African-American, recalled how he wanted to attend law school after leaving the Air Force in the 1970s. But he said he was married with two children and could not afford to move to Tallahassee or Gainesville to attend law school full time.

While the Florida Bar opposes opening more law schools, legislators say that African-Americans and Hispanics are under-represented among lawyers. African-Americans and Hispanics represent 30 percent of the population but just 8 percent of the state's lawyers, Diaz-Balart said.

The Florida A&M law school would be in Central Florida, and locations are being scouted in the Orlando area. FIU in Miami has the largest number of Hispanic students among the state's 10 public universities. Once they are fully operating, the two schools are expected to cost the state more than $5-million each year.

"It looks like the law schools are on the fast track, and something is going to happen," Miller said.

The fight over new law schools has been raging for more than a decade. Florida A&M supporters complain the university's law school was unfairly closed in the 1960s and FSU wound up with a law school instead. Hispanic legislators from South Florida have been lobbying for years for a law school at FIU.

The atmosphere this year is different.

The state is flush with cash because of the booming economy. And this time African-American and Hispanic legislators are united in pushing for the law schools instead of fighting against each other.

"I think they're all tied together right now," said Rep. Rudy Garcia, R-Hialeah, said of both law schools and the medical school. "With all of the money you can do it. That's the bottom line."

The grumbling over new law schools and a medical school has quieted since earlier in the session. Democrats jokingly refer to the new school as "Thrasher medical school" after the speaker. But no one rose to complain when the House considered the bill Tuesday.

Supporters emphasized the mission of an FSU medical school would be to train doctors who would serve in rural areas or specialize in geriatric medicine. There are four other medical schools in Florida, including one at the University of South Florida.

"It would not detract from other medical schools but complement their existing research programs," said Rep. Durell Peaden, R-Crestview , who is a doctor.

The state Board of Regents has opposed the new law schools. Chancellor Adam Herbert and the regents also have opposed the medical school but are remaining quiet this year. Their clout is diminished as some Republicans are moving to abolish their positions.

Bush said this week that he is open to adding the new schools. But he said he wants to be sure they would fulfill their missions:

"I'm looking to see how the bill will be structured. I think any of these professional schools should have performance criteria attached to them. They're all very worthy ideas. There just needs to be some structure around them to carry out the intent."

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