Florida House unveils higher education budget

Florida House leaders unveiled a proposed higher-education budget Tuesday that includes cuts designed to spur state universities and colleges to spend some of their reserve money.

The proposal also would not expand the Bright Futures merit-scholarship program to cover 75 percent of the tuition and fees for “medallion scholars.”

House Higher Education Appropriations Chairman Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, said House leaders are looking to pass an “austere” state budget in the range of $85 billion, in contrast to Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed $87.4 billion overall spending plan.

To keep the 2018-2019 budget within expected revenue growth and to keep state reserves strong, Ahern said it will necessitate spending cuts.

Ahern said the higher-education budget has been targeted for cuts because of the “substantial growth” in state money for the system during the past five years, including a $1.3 billion increase in general revenue support.

“In this budget we will be recommending that we start slowing that growth,” Ahern said.

While the House budget will include cuts in operating money for the colleges and universities, the reductions could be offset by the schools using reserve money, Ahern said.

“Remember that unlike other state agencies, colleges and universities do not revert their general revenue back to the (state) treasury each year,” Ahern said. “They keep those taxpayer dollars, and their fund balance has grown.”

He said the 28 state colleges have about $350 million in unspent money, while the 12 universities have more than $1 billion.

The House budget includes a $68.4 million cut for colleges, although it also has a $23.5 increase in operating money to partially offset a $30 million cut in this year’s budget.

“The intent is to reduce operating funds, and thereby entice colleges to spend some of their fund balances,” Ahern said.

The House would cut the university system budget by some $217 million.

Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has made a top priority of expanding the Bright Futures program. The Senate has already unanimously passed a bill (SB 4) that would increase the “medallion” scholarships to cover 75 percent of tuition and fees, up from covering about half of those costs.

The House has started moving forward with a bill (HB 423) with a 75 percent provision. But the House budget proposal Tuesday did not include such an increase.

Citing the $110 million cost of the medallion expansion, which also would include extending the scholarships to cover summer classes, Ahern said the House was “not there” yet, although the proposal is likely to be part of the House-Senate budget negotiations.

The House budget proposal would keep performance money at the current level for state colleges, $60 million, and universities, $520 million.

It would increase money for “preeminent” universities by $20 million, in anticipation that the University of South Florida is likely to join Florida State University and the University of Florida in that ranking and would share the preeminent money pool.

The proposal, meanwhile, would cut operating money for Broward College by $381,000, which is the same amount Broward President David Armstrong will be paid for a year-long sabbatical that will begin on June 30 when he steps down from the school’s presidency.

The House higher-education spending plan is just an early step in the annual state budget debate. The Senate is scheduled to reveal its higher-education budget soon, which is likely to be higher than the House’s.

Lawmakers will try to negotiate a final budget before the legislative session is scheduled to end March 9. The new budget will take effect July 1.

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