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Tuition set to go up again

Under a budget agreement, state university tuition would increase 7.5 percent.

By DIANE RADO and TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 30, 2001


Under a budget agreement, state university tuition would increase 7.5 percent.

TALLAHASSEE -- Florida's university students would see a tuition increase for the sixth year in a row in a still-evolving deal on the state budget, top lawmakers said Sunday.

State university tuition would go up by 7.5 percent, and community college tuition would increase by 3.5 percent under a budget agreement that could be finalized as early as today.

House Speaker Tom Feeney said the state is still aiming for students to cover 25 percent of the cost of their college education with the state picking up the rest, a target he called "more than fair."

"We're still way below the national average," Feeney, R-Oviedo, said Sunday night as he ate a quick dinner of lasagne and salad while receiving legislative updates from his leadership team.

As the Legislature races toward a scheduled Friday adjournment, all but a handful of issues in the $50-billion state budget have been decided. Legislative leaders already have agreed on a $175-million tax cut and a 4 percent spending increase for public school students.

The budget isn't the only key issue left to be resolved in the session's final five days.

Legislators still are struggling to reach agreements on proposals to improve the care in nursing homes; rewrite growth management laws; change the civil service system for state workers; overhaul the higher education system; and change state election laws while replacing the antiquated punch-card voting machines that were the focus of the presidential recount controversy.

Reaching an agreement on an elections package could be particularly difficult. The House and Senate have approved separate proposals, and negotiators will start working out a compromise today that could be approved or rejected -- but not changed -- by the House and Senate this week.

The Senate would provide grants to counties to replace punch-card voting machines, but the House wants to loan the counties the money. Feeney also indicated Sunday night that he does not support the Senate's proposals to restore voting rights for convicted felons, make local supervisor of elections offices nonpartisan or hand elections supervisors $5-million to educate voters.

"If voters can't read the difference between Bush and Gore, what are you going to do with $5-million to solve that problem?" he asked.

An agreement on a tuition increase was easier to come by Sunday.

For weeks, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jim Horne, R-Orange Park, and fellow senators had been reluctant to go along with a tuition increase. But with time running out and state university officials complaining that they would not get enough money to cover the cost of thousands of new students, Horne said he felt compelled to agree to the increase.

The House was on board all along, proposing a 5 percent tuition increase for all universities and giving each university the discretion to raise tuition by another 2.5 percent.

Current state university tuition is $51.79 per credit hour for undergraduate students.

Horne said a 7.5 percent increase is in line with tuition raises over the past several decades.

But the Florida Student Association opposes the 7.5 percent increase, saying it is 52.7 percent greater than the national average increase of 3.55 percent.

"If the House proposal is adopted, it will equate to a 37.3 percent increase in tuition since 1995-96 -- more than quadruple the rate of inflation over that time," the association said in a position paper. During that time, the cost of books, room and board and other college fees have risen considerably.

An analysis by the Senate Appropriations Committee shows that the Legislature approved no tuition increases for 1994-95 and 1995-96. But since then, tuition has risen every year. Between 1996-97 and 1998-99, the increase was about 7 percent. In 1999-2000, Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed an across-the-board tuition increase of 5 percent, but allowed universities the discretion to raise tuition 5 percent.

The 7.5 percent increase for the next school year is not set in stone until the Legislature takes a final vote on the budget and Bush agrees to the figure. The 3.5 percent increase for community colleges will have varying effects at the 28 community colleges, because each community college can charge 10 percent above or below the amount set by the Legislature. The current fee level is $37.77 per credit hour.

Budget negotiators also agreed Sunday to a 2.5 percent pay raise for state workers starting Nov. 1. Corrections officers would get 4.5 percent.

The pay raises will cost the state more than $100-million and guarantee at least a $600 annual pay raise to every worker. Legislators also set aside more than $15-million for performance bonuses.

But Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, complained Sunday that the pay increase would not cover the cost of rising health insurance premiums. The health insurance premiums will go up 15 percent.

"How can you be happy with a situation like this?" Lawson said.

Today, Feeney and Senate President John McKay are expected to hash out the few remaining budget issues that separate the two chambers. An agreement has to be published by Tuesday evening if legislators are to give final approval by the scheduled adjournment Friday. That is because the state Constitution requires a 72-hour cooling-off period between the time a budget agreement is announced and the final vote.

Among the remaining budget issues:

Whether to transfer $75-million or $100-million from the popular Preservation 2000 land-buying program into the Everglades restoration project. That would free general tax dollars to be spent on education and social services.

Whether to transfer money for overseas trade missions from Secretary of State Katherine Harris to Enterprise Florida, the public-private partnership that focuses on economic development. The Senate wants to transfer the money, Feeney said, but the House opposes it.

How much money to spend on school construction projects. The Senate wants to spend millions of dollars more than the House. "They've got projects coming out of their ears," Feeney complained.

Lawmakers already have agreed to drop plans for several deep cuts in social services, including a controversial plan to stop paying for eyeglasses, dentures and hearing aides for poor adults. Social service advocates still complain that there are other social services cuts that can affect the health care of poor people.

Republicans say some of the proposed cuts were negotiating tactics as they grappled with a nearly $1-billion shortfall in the Medicaid program and slowing tax revenues. But they admit they paid a political price for proposing cuts that Democrats used to skewer them.

"We got hit," House Majority Leader Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, acknowledged Sunday. "But the bottom line is when the budget comes out everybody will be satisfied with it -- and we can brag about it all summer long."

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