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House plan would end state pay for university foundations’ staff

The Florida House is pushing for $164 million in budget cuts in its initial higher-education budgets.

Under a plan outlined by the House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee on Monday, universities would see a $110 million cut, while state colleges would face $61 million in reductions. Small increases in other higher-education programs, including workforce education and private colleges, lowers the proposed net reduction to $164 million.

“I recognize that reducing a budget is never an easy thing to do,” said subcommittee Chairman Larry Ahern, R-Seminole. “However, compared to other areas of the state, higher education was due for an adjustment, and that will allow funding for other areas of need in the state.”

RELATED: Complete Florida Legislature coverage

The House proposal is not a surprise after a hearing this month by the Appropriations Committee, which raised questions about university spending, the use of foundations by universities and state colleges and large reserves compiled by each system.

The proposal is an initial step as the House prepares to pass an overall spending plan and then begin negotiations with the Senate. The negotiations will lead to a budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Ahern said university spending has grown “exponentially faster” than every other major program in the state budget in recent years, with the exception of Medicaid.

He also cited the $839 million in reserve funds compiled by the universities and more than $300 million in reserves held by state colleges.

Ahern said the House budget plan would eliminate the use of state funds to pay the salaries of foundation employees, which amounted to about $53 million for universities and $9.8 million for state colleges in the current year.

“Simply put, this practice uses taxpayer dollars to create permanent wealth for the colleges and universities,” Ahern said.

The House budget cuts are based on permanently eliminating the foundation personnel payments, allowing the schools to maintain a 5 percent reserve and then cutting the university reserves by 25 percent and the state college reserves by 22 percent.

“All in all, I think what we have done here and what you have proposed is a very reasonable approach,” said House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero. “We do need a course correction, and I think this budget begins to point us in that direction.”

The House higher-education cuts could put the chamber at odds with the Senate, where Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has advanced an initiative to elevate Florida’s state universities.

But the House’s cuts are not that far off from a potential $131 million reduction plan outlined earlier this month by the Senate Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee, which will unveil its latest spending plan on Tuesday.

The major difference is about three-quarters of the Senate cuts were aimed at the state college system, including a $55 million reduction in remedial education funding, which is not included in the House’s initial plan.

The House proposal would provide $206 million in funding for the Bright Futures merit scholarship program, which is an $11.5 million reduction, reflecting state economists’ estimates that fewer students will qualify for or renew the scholarships in the coming year.

Ahern said the House plan does not reflect an extension of Bright Futures scholarships to the summer semester, which Gov. Rick Scott and the Senate have proposed. But he said the summer expansion “remains on the table” as budget negotiations advance.

The House proposal does increase funding for Florida “student assistance grants,” which is the state’s main need-based aid program, by $7.4 million, or 5 percent.

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