Good news, bad news

Published: Monday, March 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 1, 2004 at 12:00 a.m.
The state university system faced about $180 million in cuts in the past two years, although some of the money was restored with tuition increases.
University of Florida lobbyists and administrators know they can't take another hit this year.
They're optimistic because Gov. Jeb Bush's proposed budget was kinder to higher education institutions, providing an increase of $144.1 million of direct support for universities.
About half of the extra money - $76 million - would come in tuition increases of 7.5 percent for in-state students, and 12.5 percent for out-of-state students.
But what Bush is proposing won't necessarily fly with the Legislature, so eyes are fixed on the Florida House and Senate as they begin their annual session Tuesday.
"Our only yardstick is the governor's budget," said Rick Bucciarelli, UF's vice president of governmental relations. "The governor's budget was much more supportive of higher education this year."
A plethora of issues could impact UF, including:
  • Tuition increases.
  • A proposal for students to pay out-of-state tuition who have 10 percent more hours than needed to graduate or who are not enrolled in degree programs.
  • Block tuition in which full-time students would be required to pay for five classes whether they took fewer or more classes during a semester.
  • Technology fees.
  • Growth in enrollment.
  • A backlog of state matching gifts.
    Bush included some - but not all of the items - in his budget. It's not clear what the Legislature will do.
    Some House members indicated last week they favor as much as a 3.5 percent cut from higher education, which could trim some $69 million from university coffers statewide.
    It's a starting point and nothing to fear - not yet anyway, said state Rep. Larry Cretul, R-Ocala.
    "This is what I sense. I think everyone is on the basic starting page that universities and community colleges do need some help," said Cretul, who sits on three education committees, including education appropriations.
    "We've got a long way to go and it's going to be up to us - those working toward that - to convince the rest of the appropriations committee of that. And we have to do the same battle on the floor," said Cretul, the lone Republican in Alachua County's legislative delegation.
    He acknowledged his fight will be easier because he is in the majority party.
    Senate and House leaders have indicated they plan to try to make a dent in a backlog of matching gifts totaling about $96 million. About half of that - $50 million - is owed to UF.
    The matching gift program was established as an incentive to potential donors. In many cases, financial gifts are matched by the state.
    As the state faced several lean years, the Legislature opted not to pay up and that's causing problems at UF, said Leslie Bram, associate vice president for administration.
    In the next year, the university plans to launch a new fund-raising campaign - one with a likely goal of $1 billion. Past donors might not be as free with their checkbooks if the state never matched their original gift.
    The state is in arrears for gift matches for endowed chairs and scholarships dating back to July 2000.
    "Everybody who makes a gift wants their gift to be leveraged," Bram said.
    Another $7.7 million is owed to UF in matches for capital improvements, including $1.3 million for the Steinbrenner Band Practice facility and $1.5 million for renovations at the law school.
    Bush did not include the capital improvement matches in his budget.
    Also absent from the governor's budget were:
  • University employee salary increases or bonuses.
  • About $8.9 million in operating costs for new facilities.
  • More money for health insurance. The Florida Board of Governors has endorsed the governor's proposal to force students with 10 percent more hours than needed to graduate, or who are not enrolled in degree programs, to pay out-of-state tuition. For in-state UF undergraduates, for example, hourly fees could rise from about $93 to about $460, based on Spring 2004 fees.
    Some of the other initiatives endorsed by the Board of Governors include:
  • Doling out $10 million in rewards to universities expanding programs for critical shortage areas such as teaching, nursing, engineering and information technology.
  • Allowing universities to establish block tuition rates for full-time students - a system to encourage them to take more classes and possibly graduate earlier.
  • Providing tuition billing statements that would tell the amount of education costs funded by the state.
    Florida's university presidents plan to ask the Legislature to approve a new technology fee to help universities build wireless networks, upgrade campus-wide online systems and services and rebuild outmoded networks.
    The numbers being bandied about range from $2.50 and $10 a credit hour. Students taking five three-hour classes would pay from $37.50 to $150 more each semester. UF is considering a fee of $3 to $5 a credit hour.
    The technology fee proposed last year was killed in a House subcommittee.
    While university administrators aren't too confident, they know some new money could turn up this month when state revenues are estimated once again.
    "That's the good news," Bucciarelli said. "It could be positive."
    Janine Young Sikes can be reached at (352) 337-0327 or sikesj@gvillesun.com.
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