By BARRY KLEIN and DIANE RADO
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2001
TALLAHASSEE -- The proposed overhaul of Florida's university system is unconstitutional and will be challenged in court if state lawmakers approve it, U.S. Sen. Bob Graham warned Wednesday.
In a conference call with reporters, Graham said he would not personally sue to stop the changes, but said he knows of at least one group that will, and several others that are considering it.
His remarks came on a day that the state Senate took another step toward approving a reorganization of higher education in Florida.
The plan would eliminate the state Board of Regents that has traditionally overseen Florida's universities and set up local governing boards at each school that could hire and fire presidents, approve new degree programs and set tuition, within the Legislature's prescribed limits.
The state Senate's legislation also creates an 11th university in Florida, grants power to community colleges to award four-year degrees, and gives more autonomy to the University of South Florida's branch campuses in St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee.
Graham, who has been organizing a petition drive to save the regents, said the reorganization far exceeds the intent of voters who approved a constitutional amendment in 1998 creating a new state Board of Education.
"It is in stark violation of that amendment," said Graham, who said he tried to negotiate changes with supporters of the overhaul, but has given up.
Graham said the new board was supposed to focus entirely on Florida's K-12 system. As evidence, he noted the amendment's reference to "free and public education," a definition that historically has excluded colleges and universities.
Supporters insist the changes are constitutional. They say the reorganization was sanctioned by the 1998 vote that eliminated the elected education commissioner and authorized the governor to appoint a new state education board.
And Graham's litigation threat had little impact Wednesday in the state Capitol, where a bill mandating the reorganization was given preliminary approval by the Senate.
"I don't worry about lawsuits," said Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, who is chairman of the Senate Education Committee and guided the Senate's reorganization bill through debate Wednesday.
If lawmakers worried about getting sued, he said, "we would be in gridlock every day."
But a legal challenge could have significant implications for the future, especially if it slows or halts the transition to a new education system.
A judge, for example, could issue an injunction preventing the changes from going forward, said Joe Little, a University of Florida law professor and expert on Florida's Constitution.
That could be a prescription for chaos. Much of the university system staff has quit in recent months, and administrators have been unable to hire replacements, saying no one wants to move into a situation where there is so much uncertainty.
Little said he thinks it is more likely the reorganization will move forward until the constitutional question is settled. It's unclear what would happen if the overhaul is deemed unconstitutional, since the regents would be out of business.
Sen. Ron Klein, D-Delray Beach, a lawyer, tried unsuccessfully to remove a section of the legislation that would give broad responsibilities to a state administrator who would advocate for private education programs.
Klein said the 1998 amendment in no way authorized such advocacy for private schools. "Where are we going? There's a constitutional problem. There's no authority to do what we're doing," he said.
The Republican-led Senate agreed with one change suggested by a Democrat. Sen. Les Miller, D-Tampa, had been pushing for student members of local university boards to have voting rights.
The legislation allowed student body presidents to serve as ex officio, nonvoting members of the boards. The Senate approved the change to allow the students to be voting members. Pruitt waved a white flag of surrender on the Senate floor to show that he had given into Miller's persistent campaign.
The state House began consideration of its version of higher education reorganization on Wednesday evening, but adjourned before finishing. Throughout the day, Democrats had mounted a series of procedural challenges that blocked the legislation.
The House will continue work on the legislation today.