Fight over tuition may not be needed


Published: Sunday, January 26, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 26, 2003 at 12:12 a.m.
TALLAHASSEE - This spring state lawmakers were expected to resolve long-standing disputes over how much Florida's public universities can charge students.
But before that debate has even started, some top education officials are suggesting that a new constitutional amendment may bar the Legislature from setting tuition for the state's universities.
Last fall voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 11 and agreed to create a new Board of Governors with the power to "operate, regulate, control and be fully responsible for the management of the state university system."
The amendment pushed by U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Miami Lakes, doesn't mention anything about tuition, which has been set in the annual state budget by the Legislature.
At its first meeting earlier this month, this new board voted to send many of its powers down to the local boards of trustees.
But at least one of the state board's 17 members has already asserted that the governors have the power to let university boards of trustees set tuition rates as they see fit.
Tallahassee lawyer Steve Uhlfelder, a former chairman of the now-defunct Board of Regents, raised the possibility at the Board of Governor's first meeting.
"If we can't convince the Legislature to give tuition authority to the boards of trustees, I think we have the power to do that on our own," he told his fellow governors, to the dismay of Chairman Tom Petway.
Petway, a Jacksonville insurance executive and friend of Gov. Jeb Bush, immediately threw cold water on the idea that the board would do anything to rile lawmakers.
"I'm going to use my prerogative as chair to say that I want this board to remain on friendly terms with the Legislature," he said.
In an interview last week, Uhlfelder acknowledged the inherent danger in "getting at cross-purposes with the Legislature."
"I think constitutionally we may have a lot of power we may not use," Uhlfelder said, "because if you use it, you're cutting off your nose to spite your face.
"I think we have the authority under the constitution to provide tuition flexibility," he said. "It's a question of whether you use it without gubernatorial and legislative approval."
Supporters of Amendment 11, including Chancellor Emeritus E.T. York of Gainesville, said they would welcome the board asserting itself.
"It is my hope that this newly appointed Board of Governors will read carefully the constitutional powers that they have and will begin to exercise those powers," York said. "As long as they want to do so, they will probably succeed."
Education Secretary Jim Horne last week conceded that the new Board of Governors might in fact have the power to set tuition for universities. But he too questioned whether it would be wise to assert that legislators have no say over tuition since the amendment still grants the Legislature the power to decide how much state money goes to universities.
"That may be true, but the Legislature has a lot to say about $2.5 billion," said Horne, who plans to ask lawmakers to pass a law this session to give universities the ability to set tuition rates.
So far, however, Horne's own proposal has not yet won a champion from any legislator, although university presidents are expected to formally ask lawmakers for increased control over tuition next month.
But deep university budget cuts proposed by the governor, coupled with a proposal on Bright Futures scholarships that would most negatively affect the University of Florida and Florida State University, could prompt the board to "do something creative," Uhlfelder said.
Bush this week proposed that universities raise tuition this year by 7.5 percent for undergraduate students and give university boards of trustees the power to raise it 5 percent more.
However, Bush also proposed capping the amount of state money that would go to each university for students that receive the popular Bright Futures scholarships. Students would be held harmless, forcing the universities to come up with an estimated $37 million on top of $111 million in cuts that the governor has also proposed.
More than 95 percent of the in-state freshmen coming into UF are on Bright Futures, and two-thirds of the student body, Provost David Colburn said.
"There's no question" that the proposal would create more hardship at UF and FSU Colburn said.
Uhlfelder said one possibility the Board of Governors could consider is allowing universities to impose on Bright Futures recipients an annual fee equivalent to the 7.5 percent tuition increase.
"It's almost a safety valve," Uhlfelder said. "If things can't work out, there's always the possibility that board can provide more flexibility on tuition and fees if the Legislature doesn't; but very cautiously."
In a follow-up e-mail, he wrote: "We need to be patient with the Legislature and hopefully they will recognize we can use certain powers but would prefer to have its blessing first."

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