TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Supreme Court agreed on Thursday to decide who can set tuition and fees at state universities.
The justices unanimously said they would hear an appeal from a lower court decision that says the Legislature, not the Board of Governors, has that authority.
Former Gov. Bob Graham and other challengers contend that power shifted to the board when voters passed a state constitutional amendment creating the panel in 2002.
Graham, who also served in the U.S. Senate, championed the amendment to curtail political interference with the universities by lawmakers.
The justices rejected the Legislature's argument that the case doesn't merit their attention but did not explain why in a brief order.
The extent of the board's authority and whether it includes tuition- and fee-setting are issues of such magnitude they should be resolved by the Supreme Court, the challengers argued.
"Both issues critically impact every public university in Florida, every student attending those universities now and in the foreseeable future," wrote attorney Robin Gibson on behalf of the challengers.
A trial judge earlier ruled in the Legislature's favor and the 1st District Court of Appeal agreed, saying its power to tax includes tuition and fees.
The Legislature acknowledged the high court had grounds for jurisdiction because of the appellate court decision, but it argued that's not enough to warrant review by the justices.
"The lower court ruling was based on years of legal precedent" regarding the Legislature's "power of the purse," wrote legislative lawyers Daniel Brown and Christine Davis Graves. "The decision did not create new law, alter existing law, or incorrectly construe the law."
Brown and Graves are with the Carlton Fields law firm, which the Legislature has hired to handle the case.
The board at one point joined the lawsuit but withdrew after reaching a compromise with the Republican-controlled Legislature.
That resulted in passage of a law saying the Legislature can raise tuition systemwide while the board can approve additional increases requested by each of the 11 schools. Total tuition increases, though, cannot exceed 15 percent each year.
The Legislature and the board have combined to raise rates at all schools by the full 15 percent in recent years, but Florida still ranks near the bottom among the 50 states in tuition.
Lawmakers this year also passed a bill that would let the University of Florida and Florida State University exceed the 15 percent cap with approval from the board. The bill is awaiting action by Gov. Rick Scott who has not indicated whether he will sign it.