The Florida House wants to cut university funding, while the Senate wants to dramatically increase it.
That’s the opening posture of the two chambers as they head into the final three weeks of the 2017 legislative session with the most important task ahead of them: negotiating a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Despite the diametrically opposed positions on the university system budget, there seems to be plenty of room for lawmakers to maneuver toward an agreement in the give-and-take of the negotiations.
But as they passed their budget proposal (HB 5001) this week, House Republican leaders again made a case as to why spending for the 12 state universities should be cut.
“The higher education budget has grown at a faster rate than any other area of the budget with the exception of Medicaid,” House Higher Education Appropriations Chairman Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, said.
Since the 2012-13 academic year, Ahern said state spending on universities has climbed from $3.4 billion to $4.7 billion this year, or a $1.3 billion increase.
But it may not be a coincidence that the House sought to contrast current spending with 2012-13, when the main source of state funding, known as general revenue, was at a post-recession low.
Another way to look at the spending is to go back to 2008-09, when the universities received $3.4 billion in state funding, including $2.1 billion in general revenue and $960 million in tuition and fees from students.
Since then, state spending on universities has grown by $1.3 billion, but includes an $813 million increase in tuition and fees and a more modest $310 million increase in general revenue.
During a four-year period ending in 2012-13, tuition and fees increased annually by double-digit figures. The increased tuition and fees also reflect an 11 percent growth in the student population, which is now the equivalent of 289,000 full-time students.
General revenue support for the universities is at $6,828 per student this year, according to data from the university system’s Board of Governors. It is below the peak $7,659 reached in the pre-recession 2006-07 academic year.
Tuition and fees are at $6,224 per student, reflecting 45 percent of the per-student spending, which is currently $14,046.
The House and Senate budget proposals do not call for a tuition increase next year. And Florida university tuition remains cheap, pegged at second to the lowest in the nation by the College Board in its fall survey.
Aside from the debate on the overall numbers, the House has made a more-detailed case for cutting universities by targeting more than $800 million in reserve funds held by the schools.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, a former budget chairman, remembers the universities coming to his committee in the past to make a funding plea, citing critical maintenance needs.
But in an interview on the Florida Channel’s “Florida Face to Face” program this week, Corcoran said the unspent university money puts those needs in a different context.
“They’re pummeling tons and tons of money into reserves,” he said. “How do you hold on to hundreds of millions in reserves, 800-some million dollars, and not fix those things?”
The House budget plan factors in a 5 percent reserve and then requires the universities to make a one-time cut representing 25 percent of the reserve funds. The budget has a similar cut provision for state colleges, which have more than $300 million in reserve funds.
The second major element of the House university cuts is focused on university foundations, known as “direct support organizations,” which raise private donations for the schools.
The House wants to prohibit universities and state colleges from using public employees in the foundations, which would amount to a $53 million cut to the universities under the House plan.
As part of the budget negotiations, the House also wants to make public most of the activities of the foundations, with the exception of identifying private donors.
Yet while calling for university cuts, Corcoran has also said he is open to ideas like expanding Bright Futures merit scholarships and other financial aid, a key part of the Senate’s proposed spending increase.
Higher university spending is part of Senate President Joe Negron’s initiative to elevate the national status of the schools through a combination of targeted performance funding and increased student financial support.
The issue was important enough for Negron, R-Stuart, to make a tour of all 12 university campuses last spring as he gathered information for his proposal.
The House has had more of an emphasis on the K-12 education system, with Corcoran making a special effort to elevate low-performing schools, which he calls “failure factories.” The House has a “schools of hope” initiative, which would direct $200 million toward charter schools in communities with low-performing public schools.
Negron, a former budget chairman in the House and Senate, said he sees a path where the House and Senate education initiatives can be accommodated in the new budget.
“When you look at the agendas in education of the House and the Senate, there is a natural alignment of some university and higher education proposals that the Senate has and also some K-12 proposals that the House has made a priority,” Negron said.
“I think there is broad support for both of those in both chambers,” he said. “So I think we can get there on the education issues.”
Get The Post’s complete coverage of the Florida Legislature’s 2017 session, PalmBeachPost.com/legislature