Undeterred by a veto from Gov. Rick Scott over the summer, Florida Senate leaders are making another go in 2018 at sweeping reforms to the state university system in an effort to make the state’s 12 public universities “world-class destinations.”
The legislation remains a top priority of Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, although a version of it was rejected by Scott in June because the governor felt it “impeded on the Florida College System’s mission” while seeking to lift up the universities.
The new iteration of the higher education bill (Senate Bill 4) focuses solely on the universities, with many of the same elements that last session’s legislation sought.
Among those proposals are various popular expansions to student financial aid programs — including the permanent restoration of Bright Futures scholarships to full funding, so that scholars’ awards cover 100 percent of tuition costs, plus $300 per semesters for books and other expenses.
New this year, SB 4 also calls for expanding the Medallion Scholars awards to 75 percent of tuition and fees.
Sen. Bill Galvano — a Bradenton Republican who is once again championing the higher ed reforms — said nearly 100,000 students stand to benefit under the expansions of those two programs alone.
Bright Futures was restored to full funding for only the 2017-18 school year under provisions in this year’s state budget that weren’t tied to the policy bill Scott vetoed. But the full funding won’t continue unless lawmakers act again in 2018 to extend it.
Galvano said SB 4 was also revised from its 2017 origins by addressing a touchy issue that surfaced late last session involving the University of South Florida.
In seeking to set higher standards for the state’s top universities, last session’s measure would have cost the University of South Florida millions of dollars in anticipated “pre-eminence” funding — a consequence lawmakers learned of late because of a change inserted in a several-hundred page compromise bill that was released less than three days before lawmakers had to cast a final vote on it.
USF is on track to reach pre-eminent status under the current requirement that it graduate 70 percent of its students within six years. The revision sought by the Senate would have abruptly moved the goalposts for the university — by require universities seeking “pre-eminent” status to graduate 60 percent of their students in just four years, to better encourage on-time graduation.
Galvano said Monday that under the new legislation, rather than immediately change the requirements, USF would have one year to transition to the new standard so it could continue to receive “pre-eminent” funding.
“That became a bit of an issue last year at the end of session and it has been addressed,” he said.
Senate leaders reiterated their goal is to improve four-year graduation rates, so that students don’t languish for years paying for costly higher education without reaping its benefits.
“As Florida students and their families plan for their investment in a college or university education, they deserve financial security and peace of mind throughout their academic journey,” Negron said in a statement. “With these permanent changes in law, we can help alleviate some of those financial concerns.”
Negron and other Senate leaders also want the state university system to have “the absolute no. 1 destination universities in the world,” Galvano said — not only for economic development but to ensure taxpayers get a return on their investment.
“At the end of the day, we’re putting millions upon millions [of dollars] — billions actually — into our university system and we expect them to perform at the highest level,” Galvano said.
SB 4 unanimously passed the Senate Education Committee on Monday, its first of three scheduled committee hearings.
No companion measure has yet been filed in the House, which is typically necessary for a bill to have a chance at passing during the regular session. Monday was the start of the first of several committee work weeks in advance of the 2018 session that begins in January.
Monday’s meeting of the Senate Education Committee marked the return to Tallahassee of Chairwoman Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, and the first time the senator has led a meeting of committee, although she’s officially been in charge of the panel since after the 2016 election.
Hukill missed all of the 2017 regular session and the special session in June while she underwent treatments for cancer and spent months recovering.
She worked remotely last spring — still officially in charge of what bills the Education Committee took up and observing meetings and floor sessions via the Florida Channel, but with no ability to vote on any legislation. Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby had led meetings of the Education Committee in her absence.