TALLAHASSEE — The Legislature has the authority to set state university fees and tuition rates rather than the Florida Board of Governors, an appellate court ruled Wednesday.
A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal unanimously affirmed a trial court ruling that rejected an argument that the board has tuition-setting power by virtue of a state constitutional amendment, which created the panel to oversee the State University System.
That position had been advanced in a lawsuit by former Gov. Bob Graham and others. Graham, who also is a former U.S. senator, led a citizen initiative petition drive that put the amendment on the ballot in 2002 before voters approved it.
"The legislative power to raise funds is not limited to the imposition of taxes; it includes the power to impose fees necessary to offset the costs of using state governmental services," District Judge T. Kent Wetherell II wrote for the panel.
The amendment did nothing to change that, concluded Wetherell, son of former state House speaker and retired Florida State University president T.K. Wetherell.
The decision will be appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, said Robin Gibson, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
"The opinion has done us all a favor because it has narrowed the focus of the issue," he said.
That issue is whether setting fees and tuition are part of the Legislature's appropriating powers. Gibson contends they are separate functions of government. The court disagreed, siding with lawyers for the Legislature.
While the Board of Governors amendment says the panel is "fully responsible for the management of the whole university system," the opinion cites another constitutional provision that makes clear that management of the 11 universities is "subject to the powers of the Legislature to appropriate for the expenditure of funds."
Gibson had argued the board had tuition-setting authority because that money goes into a trust fund rather than the state's general treasury and, therefore, it isn't subject to the Legislature's fundraising power. Wetherell called that "nothing more than an accounting tool" that has no bearing on the Legislature's power.
He also noted the issue isn't mentioned in the amendment or its ballot summary.
That isn't necessary, Gibson said. He said it also doesn't mention athletics, academics and other aspects of university management because all are covered by the clause saying the board is responsible for "the whole university system."
If Gibson is right, the Florida Supreme Court would not have allowed the amendment to go on the ballot, Wetherell wrote, because it would have violated a ban on citizen initiatives covering more than one subject.