OUR OPINION

Editorial: Erratic behavior


Published: Sunday, April 28, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 26, 2013 at 10:38 p.m.

Like an on-again, off-again romance, Gov. Rick Scott has been hot and cold in his interaction with state universities.

His behavior has been especially erratic as it relates to university funding. Last year, he vetoed the so-called preeminence bill that would have given the University of Florida more flexibility in tuition and other areas while also signing a budget with $300 million in cuts to the state university system.

That same budget anticipated 15 percent tuition increases at state universities to blunt the impact of cuts. Yet Scott made so much noise about tuition hikes that he scared UF into seeking just a 9 percent increase while so confusing the process that the Board of Governors approved a seemingly random array of increases for other universities.

This year, Scott has fallen back in love with the state university system — especially UF and its economic benefits. The governor recently signed a measure into law that would do much the same things as the preeminence bill — sans the tuition authority — and provides additional money for UF to try to move into the top-10 public universities and establish fully online undergraduate programs.

Yet Scott continues to oppose even a modest 6 percent university tuition hike in the House's budget. He's also pressuring universities to hold down student fees, making it a condition for universities seeking bonding authority for construction projects.

Scott might say he's been consistent in his opposition to higher costs for students and the debt it creates for them. He's right to take the issue seriously, but the governor and state lawmakers have been unclear on how universities should fund themselves if they can't even make use of existing fees.

UF is facing this problem with the expansion and renovation of the Reitz Union and renovation of more than 100-year-old Newell Hall. UF laid the groundwork for funding the projects over the last few years by raising student fees, including a $2 per credit hour increase to a building fee that the Legislature authorized last year.

But this year, the Florida Senate hasn't yet authorized bonding for the Reitz Union and Newell Hall projects. Scott has been warning the Legislature about taking on new debt for the state, failing to distinguish debt repaid through general revenue and debt repaid through established funding sources such as the building fee.

The Cabinet, which Scott leads, must give final approval to issue bonds to finance construction projects. So Scott has been able to hold building projects hostage at Florida State and Florida International universities, extracting a promise from FIU to keep a transportation fee in check.

Florida universities have gone through several years of funding cuts even as their tuition and fees were kept among the lowest in the nation. If Scott is going to show a newfound love for the economic benefits of universities, he must accept that there's a cost to achieving those benefits that must come from the state if not students.

Money might not buy love, but it would be a start to showing the governor's recent romance with UF and other state universities is not just a fling.

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