Saturday, December 16, 2017
Education

Battle cry to save USF pours out in wake of proposed budget cuts

TALLAHASSEE — Phones of lawmakers rang off the hook Tuesday, and emails poured in, loaded with words like vindictive, egregious and unconscionable. University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft took a pre-dawn flight to work the halls of the Capitol. On campus in Tampa, classes were interrupted by calls to action from students and faculty.

The battle cry: Don't punish USF.

The target: Sen. JD Alexander, the budget chairman who has put forth a potential 60 percent cut to USF funding.

Alexander, R-Lake Wales, has made known his disapproval of USF and his priority to turn USF's Lakeland campus into the 12th state university.

He says USF has dragged its feet on that split, which was put into motion by the Florida Board of Governors three months ago. But he insists there is no punishment intended in the Senate's budget proposal to give USF a larger share of funding cuts than any other university.

"It's not being punitive," Alexander said. He said the $100 million-plus cut to USF is based on the school's cash reserves — just like every university.

But USF, with $112 million as of last month, does not have the largest amount of reserves among the state's 11 universities. Florida State University ($135 million) and the University of Central Florida ($126 million) have more, according to Board of Governors documents used by the Legislature in determining those cuts.

Told of the numbers, Alexander softened a bit.

Yes, he acknowledged, USF did get a bigger cut than other universities with bigger reserves, he said, but not by much. "Like $3 million more," he said.

The Senate also considered the sizes of the universities, giving smaller schools more wiggle room, Alexander said.

But under that metric, USF is still not the largest.

"Well, we can talk about that," he said. "If we need to adjust by a few million dollars to get it fairer, then we can reallocate to the other institutions."

Rep. Will Weatherford, House speaker-designate, vowed to make sure of that fairness.

"What I call the Bull Nation is a large constituency group," said Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. "People in the Tampa Bay area and beyond who have an affinity for that university are concerned they could be singled out.

"We will not let that happen."

The House recommended an 11.6 percent cut — spread about evenly among the universities — calculated using a traditional enrollment-based formula. Under the House recommendation, USF would get a 9 percent cut, not the 60 percent proposed in the Senate.

The House and Senate will have to come to an agreement on any cut, which makes USF's funding a potential bargaining chip as leaders try to both reach a deal and protect their top priorities.

Legislators woke up Tuesday to thousands of messages after USF's board of trustees issued a call for help in their plea to be spared from disproportionate cuts.

"We've been inundated," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. "People are outraged."

"Not one call in support," said Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole.

"Irate," were the calls coming in to Lakeland Republican Sen. Paula Dockery's office.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said he wanted to look at the budget more closely, and he hoped what he was hearing out of USF was not true. Because "cuts of that magnitude," he said, "I could not support that."

Many lawmakers heard the plea directly from Genshaft, who took a 5:30 a.m. flight to Tallahassee.

She said many were surprised at the total impact of the Senate plan. There's about $79 million reduced to start with, then another $25 million held in contingency pending USF's cooperation in transferring USF Poly's assets to the new "Florida Polytechnic" university, another $18 million in costs of absorbing USF Poly's faculty and staff and $6 million USF loses for its pharmacy program, which is funded through USF Poly's budget.

Legislation to immediately split off USF Poly was slipped into the Senate's budget last week. It would shortcut the university's creation, allowing the school to separate before meeting conditions laid out by the Board of Governors, such as increased enrollment and accreditation.

Sifting through her budget analysis documents in a Capitol building hallway, Genshaft said, "It's awful." Just then a young woman darted over.

"Hi, president Judy Genshaft! I'm a USF student," said Kassandra Timothe. "How can they do this to USF?"

Genshaft hugged her and told her to keep spreading the message.

"Stay strong for USF," Genshaft said.

Back in Tampa Bay, business and civic leaders joined the chorus. Both the Hillsborough and Pinellas boards of county commissioners issued statements opposing the cuts to USF. So did the Tampa Bay Partnership, Chamber of Commerce and Florida Council of 100.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said a cut on the scale proposed in the Senate "potentially knocks the wheels off of one our most valuable economic engines."

"Every elected official in this county needs to step up and make their position known," Buckhorn said, "and do whatever we have to do to beat this back."

On campus, discussions about the ramifications interrupted classes. Social media sites lit up with reaction.

"Of course we're upset about it!" said 19-year-old Kemberlee Young.

USF student body president Matt Diaz, 22, organized two vanloads of students to travel to Tallahassee today before dawn to tell Alexander's 9 a.m. budget committee what the potential cuts could mean to them.

Alexander said he's happy the students are coming. It'll be a chance to tell them the other side of the story, he said.

USF is being "misrepresentative" of the numbers, Alexander said. "I think we'll be able to help them understand more fully what we're doing."

Times staff writers Steve Bousquet, Bill Varian, Richard Danielson, Patty Ryan, Jeff Harrington, Elizabeth Leva and Robbyn Mitchell contributed to this report. Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected]

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