Bush warns universities of tight budget

Gov. Jeb Bush, right, meets with presidents from the state's colleges and universities Thursday in Tallahassee. Bush and the presidents talked about education issues that would be facing them during the upcoming year.

The Associated Press
Published: Friday, January 17, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 17, 2003 at 12:38 a.m.
TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Jeb Bush told the state's university presidents to expect a tough budget year as the state tries to come up with the money to pay for a smaller-class-size amendment passed by voters in November, along with $130 million in tax cuts that were put off to balance last year's budget.
"While Florida is in a better position than many states when it comes to revenue, it's not going to be pretty," Bush said of his budget proposal, which is due Tuesday.
Anticipating a possible 5 percent cut in state appropriations - or more - to the universities this year, the presidents are pressing forward with plans to try to get more money out of students through tuition and fees.
Only 25 percent of the cost of university attendance is paid through tuition and fees, with 75 percent picked up by the state. So a 5 percent cut in state appropriations would require a tuition increase roughly three times as large to replenish that money.
Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua, will introduce a bill that would give universities the flexibility to set tuition rates at the national average for self-selected "peer institutions," University of Florida President Charles Young said at the meeting. The bill would allow universities to raise tuition levels by as much as 20 percent a year, setting aside some percentage of the increases to give financial aid to needy students.
Although Bush and the Florida Board of Education have said repeatedly that the universities should have the flexibility to set tuition, both set limits for tuition increases in their budgets this year.
The Florida Board of Education asks for a 7.5 percent tuition increase at all universities and that schools be given the latitude to increase it 5 percent more. Bush did not reveal the size of his proposed tuition increase Thursday but said the Board of Education figure "sounds a little high to me."
Asked after his meeting with the presidents whether he's being overly pessimistic when it comes to the budget, Bush replied: "I don't see any reason to paint a rosy picture when one doesn't exist."
"If I were them, I'd be prepared for a tough year."
In addition to the more general concern about the budget, university officials were worried Thursday about a plan by the House Education Appropriations Committee to "zero-base" university budgets.
Instead of taking last year's budget and adding or subtracting, lawmakers want to start from zero and make the schools justify their expenses.
One complication of that approach is that, because of rapid lawmaker turnover because of term limits, virtually no one on the committee has any experience with university budgets.
For instance, some committee members are eyeing the $1.2 billion in research contracts and grants that come into the schools, said Carl Blackwell, chancellor of Colleges and Universities.
He said they don't seem to be aware that businesses and government agencies that award the grants are, in effect, purchasing very specific research services.
"There is no institutional knowledge on that committee," University of South Florida lobbyist Jeff Muir told the presidents. "We have a lot of educating to do in a short period of time."
He said the committee will arrive at a budget proposal in mid- to late February.
Carrie Miller can be reached at 338-3103 or Carrie.miller@ gainesvillesun.com.

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