Promise keeping

Published: Sunday, January 4, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 3, 2004 at 9:26 p.m.

Florida law has long promised matching state dollars for private individuals who give money to state universities to build new facilities, fund research or establish scholarships. But the Florida Legislature almost always fails to provide sufficient funding to make good on that legal promise.

As a result, some big time university donors have withdrawn their pledges or refused to make new gifts.

Because of the Legislature's failure to follow the law, the University of Florida and its sister institutions have a $100 million backlog of gifts and donations that are waiting for state matching dollars. As Paul Robell, vice president for development at UF, recently told The St. Petersburg Times: "We need some kind of certainty right now. The uncertainty is killing us."

The good news is that there appears to be a deal in the making that would pay off those unmatched gifts. Discussions in the Legislature center around funding the entire backlog in the next legislative session. After that, however, universities would have to agree to restrictions to any future matching gifts.

One proposal, for instance, would cap state matches at $3 million a year for any single project, with a limit of $15 million over five years. The minimum amount of money that donors would have to pledge in order to qualify for matching state money would also be raised under the deal. Currently, donors who give $100,000 can expect a state match of $50,000, and gifts of $2 million or more qualify for a 100 percent match.

It is unfortunate that lawmakers want to cap the matching gifts program, because it is the model of a public-private partnership that greatly improves the State University System's ability to provide high-quality education, do cutting edge research and otherwise deliver on its public service mission. The reality is, however, that the Legislature's "no new taxes no matter what" mantra limits the state's ability to adequately fund higher education.

This year, the Legislature served out $40 million in budget cuts to the state universities. Those cuts would not have seemed so painful if the state had at least kept its promise to match private gifts.

By erasing the $100 million matching gifts deficit in 2004, the Legislature would at least keep its promise on outstanding obligations, even if the price for doing do is to limit future gifts.

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