TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Setting up a debate over the future of Florida’s colleges and universities, the state Senate passed an ambitious proposal Thursday intended to lift schools in the Sunshine State into the ranks of elite counterparts nationwide.
For college students, the legislation means more financial aid and incentives designed to help them graduate faster. For universities, it includes more help to recruit and retain high-ranking faculty as they seek to join the ranks of more prominent universities elsewhere.
“We’re the number one destination in the world and our universities and college should be the number one destination in the nation and the world,” said Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican and sponsor of the bill, a top priority for Senate leaders.
But like many other items up for consideration during this year’s legislative session, it’s not clear if Republicans in both the House and Senate can reach a consensus. That’s because House Republicans have asserted that state schools may be wasting money and don’t need any more help from taxpayers. The Senate bill comes with a hefty price tag that could be nearly $300 million if it is fully paid for in the annual state budget.
The Senate voted 35-1 for a bill (SB 2) that would require the state to cover 100 percent of tuition costs for top performing high school students who attend a state university or college. Florida used to pay 100 percent of tuition for those eligible for the top level of the state’s Bright Futures scholarship, but it was scaled back during the Great Recession.
The legislation also includes boosts for several other financial aid programs. Some Democrats questioned why the bill does not call for increasing financial aid for needy students, but Senate President Joe Negron promised that the Senate would set aside additional money for the state’s existing nearly $150 million program.
“My goal is that every student regardless of her or his financial circumstances can attend the university in which he or she has been admitted,” Negron said. “It doesn’t mean they get a free education. They should have to work. Your family should contribute as able.”
But while the Senate leaders are championing a move to steer more money to state universities and colleges, House Republicans are sounding leery of the idea.
The House on Wednesday evening held a nearly four-hour meeting as legislators grilled officials from the state’s 12 public universities on spending by their foundations. Foundations seek private donations that are usually used to augment state spending, but many foundations have used state money to supplement their operations, including helping to pay for employees.
Rep. Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Republican and House budget chief, and other legislators questioned decisions by foundations to spend money on international travel, citing for example, a decision by the University of Florida Foundation to spend more than $61,000 on a trip to Paris. University officials explained that many of the trips abroad were usually done on behalf of students and faculty attending academic conferences and international meetings.
“Do we really think that the problem with higher education in this state is lack of funding or do we think it might be some misappropriation of money?” Trujillo asked.
Trujillo also was skeptical that universities were using a combination of private and public money to pay hundreds of employees more than $200,000. When it was pointed out that the list includes football and basketball coaches, he said it may be time to examine how much they are getting paid.
Negron said that he had no problem with House leaders asking questions about university expenses and said doing “routine oversight” and making sure that “students have an opportunity to go to the best university that they can.”
This story has been corrected to show the vote was 35-1, not unanimous.
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