Senate advances higher-ed initiative amid budget uncertainty


With House leaders raising questions about university spending, the Florida Senate on Thursday passed a major higher-education initiative that seeks to boost funding for Bright Futures scholarships, faculty recruitment and support for outstanding graduate programs.

The bill (SB 2) is a top priority for Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who toured all 12 public universities in the spring. Negron said he wants to elevate Florida’s universities to “elite, national destination” institutions, while holding the schools to higher performance standards and offering more financial support for students.

RELATED: More Legislature news

The Senate’s 36-1 vote came following House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo’s comments on Wednesday evening that university funding and spending was outpacing most portions of the state budget, with the exception of the Medicaid program.

“I think the House’s position is going to be very clear, that the amount of money we’ve put into the system, the system has almost run wild,” said Trujillo, a Miami Republican.

Negron, a former House and Senate budget chairman, said he supported the House effort to probe university funding. The House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday focused on the universities’ financial relationship with their foundations.

Negron called it “routine oversight over government agencies and quasi-government agencies to make sure that any public funds are spent appropriately.”

He also said he found no inconsistencies between the House’s attempt to make sure public funding is being spent “wisely” and the Senate’s legislation to elevate the quality of the state universities.

“It’s day three,” Negron said about the 60-day session. “I certainly don’t expect the House to adopt all of the Senate’s priorities this early in the process.”

A number of significant higher-education policy changes in the legislation, including new performance standards, are not contingent on funding.

The bill would hold universities to a four-year graduation rate for baccalaureate students, rather than the current six-year measure. It would impose similar standards, with more flexibility, on state college degree and certificate programs.

It was the four-year graduation measure that caused Sen. Jeff Clemens, R-Lake Worth, to cast the lone vote against the Senate bill.

“I don’t see the purpose of forcing universities to rush kids through in four years,” Clemens said.

He said he also objected to the fact that proposals from Democratic senators who wanted to see more need-based financial aid in the package were largely rejected.

Another significant provision would require all 12 universities to have a “block” tuition plan in place by the fall of 2018. Students would pay a flat, per-semester fee rather than paying for courses on the current credit-hour basis.

But the bill does carry a $162 million price tag, with $126 million linked to having the Bright Futures merit scholarship program cover full tuition and fees for top-performing students, known as “academic scholars.” The scholarship now covers roughly half of the average $200 per credit-hour costs of tuition and fees.

Another $25 million would provide the estimated 45,000 Bright Futures academic scholars with $300 for the fall and spring semesters to cover textbooks and other expenses.

The bill includes $5.3 million — doubling the state’s match — for a financial-aid program that supports “first generation” college students.

And $1.1 million would go to expand the Benacquisto National Merit Scholar program, which pays full tuition to out-of-state students.

Other provisions in the proposal, not reflected in the $162 million cost, would rely on funding in the overall state budget.

For example, the Senate is tentatively proposing to earmark $65 million in the state spending plan to support the “world class scholars” provision in the higher-education bill that would allow universities to recruit top-level professors and researchers.

The Senate is also expected to include $50 million for a program that recognizes top-performing law, medical and graduate business schools.

Additional funding also will be needed for a program, backed by Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, which would provide full scholarships to students from farmworker families.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Politics

EXCLUSIVE: Parents of teen killed by Conniston classmate again try claims bill
EXCLUSIVE: Parents of teen killed by Conniston classmate again try claims bill

For years, Ashraf Kamel and his ex-wife, Marguerite Dimitri, tried to persuade Florida lawmakers to award them more of the $1.6 million verdict they won in 2002 for the 1997 shooting death of their 13-year-old son, Jean Pierre, at Conniston Middle School in West Palm Beach. They received the $200,000 statutory limit from the Palm Beach County...
Transcript, photos: Trump, Melania, Rubio, Scott meet cops after Parkland school shooting
Transcript, photos: Trump, Melania, Rubio, Scott meet cops after Parkland school shooting

Sen. Marco Rubio (near American flag at left), first lady Melania Trump, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, President Donald Trump, Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi with first responders in Fort Lauderdale on Friday night. (George Bennett/The Palm Beach Post) FORT LAUDERDALE — President ...
With McCain’s retreat, some look to Romney to carry traditional GOP torch
With McCain’s retreat, some look to Romney to carry traditional GOP torch

In more ways than one, followers of traditional Republican orthodoxy are facing an emotional inflection point this week.  Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., at home battling an aggressive form of brain cancer, will not attend this weekend's Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of foreign policy leaders from NATO nations that has become a central...
Mike Pence bought a Valentine’s Day gift for his wife at . . . CVS Pharmacy
Mike Pence bought a Valentine’s Day gift for his wife at . . . CVS Pharmacy

Hey, isn't that . . . Vice President Mike Pence, on Wednesday night dropping by a retail spot known for its selection of gifts every woman loves? The Veep was spotted on Valentine's Day making his way out of the CVS at Pennsylvania Avenue and 19th Street NW. And it seemed he hadn't just made the drugstore run for a pack of gum.  CBS White House...
Mnuchin calls on Congress to look into gun violence, breaking with rest of White House
Mnuchin calls on Congress to look into gun violence, breaking with rest of White House

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Thursday called on Congress to look into issues related to gun violence less than 24 hours after 17 people were killed in a school shooting in Florida.  "I will say, personally, I think the gun violence — it's a tragedy what we've seen yesterday, and I urge Congress to look at these issues,"...
More Stories