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Florida Senate Passes $70.7 Billion Budget, Cutting Higher Education By $400 Million

| February 23, 2012

Not a care in the world: Senate President Mike Haridopolos and Senate President Pro Tempore Mike Bennett. (Florida Senate)

The Senate overwhelmingly approved a $70.7 billion spending plan for the coming budget year on Thursday, setting up a two-week window for negotiating and approving a final agreement with the House if the Legislature is to go home on time.

The measure (SB 2000/HB 5001) passed the chamber on a 33-6 measure.

The opposing votes came from a bipartisan hodgepodge of members — Sens. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland; Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville; Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, D-West; Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach; Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale; and Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood.

It would reduce spending or the growth in spending in health care and higher education while boosting public education by nearly $1.2 billion.

During the debate, the plan came under fire from the right and the left. Oelrich ticked off a list of projects that were sprinkled onto the bill on the Senate floor in the final moments: $150,000 to restore an historic log cabin in Biscayne Park, $75,000 for the Haitian Heritage Museum Project, $500,000 for the Bay of Pigs Museum.

Foes contrasted that with the dire spending plan for universities, health care and the like.

“I cannot support a budget that gives member projects while we’re cutting higher education,” Dockery said.

Democrats lambasted the plan for once again overlooking the possibility of increasing tax revenues by closing loopholes.

“For these reasons, I cannot in good conscience vote for the budget — not because there isn’t some good in it, but because we could have and should have done so much better,” said Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston.

Senate Budget Chairman J.D. Alexander countered that raising revenues was unlikely with a Republican majority elected with what it saw as a mandate to hold taxes steady.

“So within what we have, we’ve tried to find as many solutions as possible,” the Lake Wales Republican said.

The discussion was dominated, though, by budget cuts for the University of South Florida and a separate, but related, bill writing independence for the university’s Lakeland campus into state law. Under an agreement struck hours before the budget debate began, USF’s main Tampa campus was set to be hit with a cut of nearly $78.9 million.

The agreement reduced that back by more than $33 million by spreading some of the cut to other USF locations and tapping some education construction dollars; separate amendments covered about $13 million of the costs USF will take on when it retakes a pharmacy school and some of the staff at the Lakeland location, known as USF Polytechnic.

The agreement was worked out between Alexander, who has clashed repeatedly with USF over his plans to make Polytechnic an independent university, and Tampa-area lawmakers led by Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa.

They insisted that the USF cut was out of proportion to those absorbed by other institutions, but were satisfied with the amendments approved Wednesday.

“I think with that, the University of South Florida is treated comparable to the other universities,” said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

Others were still angry over the way the matter unfolded.

“Yes, thank you very much, but we shouldn’t have been here to begin with,” said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.

In all, universities would be slashed by $400 million, though Senate leaders say the schools should fill those holes by tapping their reserves.

With their concerns about funding for the main school answered, Norman and Latvala supported a bill (SB 1994) that would convert the Lakeland campus into Florida Polytechnic University.

The Florida Board of Governors has approved independence contingent on the campus meeting certain benchmarks, but the bill approved Wednesday would write the new school into the law and allow it to go forward with independence at the same time as it tries to meet those benchmarks, a timeline far quicker than what many had envisioned.

But even with Latvala and Norman on board, a handful of Tampa Bay and other lawmakers challenged the proposal. They questioned the need to accelerate the independence of the campus and whether it was premature to grant independence before the benchmarks were met.

Voting against the measure “will not stop this from becoming the 12th university,” said Dockery, whose district includes Polytechnic. “But it will do it when it’s time for it to be a 12th university.”

The objections to the measure prompted the normally even-keeled Alexander to raise his voice practically to a shout as he recounted years of conflict with USF over the direction of the Polytechnic campus. Alexander said he believed that USF President Judy Genshaft and others had little interest in making sure the transition to an independent university went smoothly.

“After my 14-year experience as a branch campus, I don’t know how in the world it will be done well under the current situation,” Alexander said.

The bill passed 35-4; several other bills tied to the budget also sailed through the chamber, often on lopsided or unanimous votes.

Lawmakers still have to bridge a gap between the size of the Senate budget and a House plan — which weighs in at $69.2 billion, but excludes some portions of government from its budget that the Senate includes — before beginning to hammer out more specific differences between the two proposals.

House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, said he was “hopeful” that the two chambers could begin negotiations on the details as soon as next week.

–Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida

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