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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.



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