An era of a dozen years inched closer to its end Monday as lawmakers in Tallahassee approved a measure that would strip the University of South Florida St. Petersburg of its hard-won accreditation.
The consolidation of the USF System has already sent ripples throughout the Tampa Bay region but takes up just a slice of a large higher education package now headed to the desk of Gov. Rick Scott. The bill also dramatically and permanently expands Bright Futures scholarships, sheds light on secretive university foundations and, contentiously, wades into campus free speech.
The bill's passage came amid a push-pull of power between the chambers in the waning days of the legislative session. The Senate had passed its priority higher education package in early January with a unanimous vote, making it the first bill to clear the floor, while the House took its time. The resulting House version expanded on the bill with a few key differences.
The Senate then approved those late Monday.
Now the last hurdle is Gov. Scott, who Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said had rolled up his sleeves to work on the bill himself.
Of all of the bill's moving parts, perhaps the most critical for Florida families is that it enshrines an expansion of the state's premier merit-based scholarship in law, sending a huge swath of high-achieving Florida students to college for a fraction of the sticker price.
The top tier of Bright Futures scholars will be able to attend Florida universities with 100 percent of tuition and some fees paid by the state. The tier just below them — with a cutoff of a 3.0 GPA, and a 1170 SAT or 26 ACT — will be able to attend with 75 percent of tuition and some fees paid.
All in all, nearly 100,000 top students will have their bills slashed, a state investment of about $124 million that leaders say will keep top-tier students in Florida.
"I want to talk about Bright Futures," said Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Port Richey, a recent college student. "This will change lives and will enable students who never thought they could afford a college education."
Debate in both chambers on Monday largely circled around the House's campus free speech measure, which forbids universities from shunting speech into cordoned-off 'free speech zones' and lets anyone who feels his or her rights were infringed upon to confront the offending school. The language has been a lightning rod for controversy since it first appeared.
Few public universities in the state have these free speech zones, but Rep. Bob Rommel, who initially brought the language forward, said he's concerned about a rising tide of what he sees as campus intolerance. Meanwhile, a chorus of Democrats called the provision a "poison pill," saying that Rommel's attempt to unleash speech would end up constraining it.
Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Winter Park, said the bill just gives additional tools to provocateurs and Neo-Nazis, allowing them to sue if they feel their message is being trampled.
"Why don't we go ahead and remove this very controversial language that elevates hate speech against those of us who speak up against that hate speech?" Smith said, but his attempt was shot down.
Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, recited some of the slurs she has been called, questioning whether the right to speak freely would mean enduring that hate.
"I don't believe the terms you have offered up would be considered peaceful protest in today's society," said Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero. Still, he said: "Meanwhile, students' rights are being denied."
When the bill arrived in the Senate, members there also protested. One also said he was troubled by the process of accepting a House amendment that the Senate had left on the cutting room floor.
"I keep feeling like I'm in the movie Groundhog Day," said Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale. "These bills have really good cores, and really bad stuff keeps getting tacked on at the end of the day."
The differences between the chambers were hammered out when the Senate voted 33 to 5 to accept the House's additions. Those changes included the USF consolidation, free speech zones, the transparency of university foundations and a study of Florida's performance-based funding system.
Currently, universities contribute to a pool of money, then compete in areas such graduation rates. The three bottom-ranked schools get no money.
Rep. Ramon Alexander, D-Tallahassee, repeated his criticisms of the "flawed" system. Since 2014, of $720 million in performance-based funding, Florida A&M University has earned just $17 million, he said. The University of North Florida has claimed just $11.4 million.
A school can be penalized, he said, then be asked "to come back year after year and compete on the same playing field."
Leading state lawmakers have largely embraced the performance-based system but concede that it can have inadvertent effects on the schools stuck at the bottom, who are made to suffer even as they may be improving.
Beyond the House additions, the bill's major components make changes state leaders say will help elevate Florida universities to higher levels — for instance, judging university performance on tougher metrics, like four-year rather than six-year graduation rates.
It would also help universities recruit top-notch faculty and sharpen their professional schools and distinctive degree programs.
A few lawmakers spoke out about the USF consolidation idea, which appeared in the House higher education package mid-January and immediately prompted outcry in St. Petersburg, where campus loyalists and locals said a merger would just turn back the clock on a flourishing campus. Some in St. Petersburg recalled years of bitter tension, when they said local leaders had to claw for independence and money from tight fists in Tampa. Separate accreditation, achieved in 2006, granted St. Petersburg a measure of autonomy when it came to budgeting, hiring and programming, and strengthened its separate identity.
But that relative independence could also cost USF St. Petersburg, some lawmakers say. As USF Tampa reaches greater heights in state rankings, and rakes in bonus funding, the honor and wealth won't trickle down to students in St. Petersburg or Sarasota. Removing the barriers means a rising tide lifts all boats, consolidation backer Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, has said.
"Those preeminence dollars that they receive would most likely only be spent on the Tampa campus," said Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero. "If we move to one consolidated accreditation, it is our belief the preeminence dollars would be spent across all three campuses and that all students would benefit from it."
Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, reiterated his concerns that the fast-moving process sidestepped public study and debate.
"This is an issue that has a long and complicated history which we are reversing course on in a few weeks," Diamond said. "In fact, the president of our university was surprised by the idea, and I met with her and she assured me that she had no idea this was coming."
Rep. Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg, said he's watched USF St. Petersburg blossom under its current setup, but is optimistic about the money and student opportunities that could soon flow to the regional schools.
"All I keep hearing about is what this person didn't like, what that person didn't like," Newton said. "But nobody's talking about the students."
Operating in silos isn't good for anybody, he said.
"Is it perfect? Probably not," Newton said. "But the opportunity to be able to afford more resources for the students that look like me and my district on all three of these campuses, I think that's a good thing."
In the Senate, President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said consolidation at its core is about uniformity. As USF has risen higher, its outlier status as a university system, rather than one institution, has become more stark. Also, only USF Tampa metrics count for preeminence funding.
"So in fairness to the other universities and in fairness to the branch campuses, it will create some equity and uniformity," Negron said.
Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, rattled off a list of groups in Pinellas County that have urged the Legislature to slow down, including retired faculty, the county commission, the St. Petersburg City Council and chamber and more. He also said that, as USF raises admissions standards across the system, minority students will be cut out.
He tried introducing an amendment to slam the brakes, but it failed.
Galvano echoed Negron's concerns about equity at the regional schools. Last year, he said, USF Sarasota-Manatee had to take $9 million out of reserves, whereas the Tampa campus had close to a $40 million funding increase.
"If we're going to be accredited as one, then they're going to be treating the campuses as one," Galvano said.