TALLAHASSEE — Senate leaders inserted last-minute language in a budget bill Wednesday to immediately split the Lakeland campus of the University of South Florida into the state's 12th university.
This move would fulfill a top priority of Senate budget Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, who, because of term limits, is in his last legislative session. It would allow the 1,300-student branch campus in Lakeland to almost completely sever ties with USF and become "Florida Polytechnic" this year.
The bill was sprung on unsuspecting lawmakers minutes before the start of a late-afternoon higher education budget meeting.
"Is this the procedure, to get one piece of paper to create a new university?" asked state Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Alachua.
"This is the language already established by the Board of Governors," said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, the committee chairman and a Republican from Ormond Beach.
The Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system, voted in November to allow USF Polytechnic to transition to independence. But they attached a number of benchmarks the campus needs to meet — under the guidance of USF president Judy Genshaft — before flipping the switch. Those included the completion of the first part of the school's new campus and increased enrollment.
The board did not set a deadline. But one of the other benchmarks, achieving its own accreditation, was expected to take at least three to five years.
The bill proposed Wednesday calls for a deadline of Dec. 31, 2016, to meet those benchmarks. But it would grant Florida Polytechnic independence immediately.
Why not allow the Board of Governors' plan to run its course?
Lynn said it wasn't happening quickly enough.
"I think there's generally a feeling that, you know, you're taking too long," Lynn said after the meeting. "I think there was a desire by some people to, if you're going to do it, either do it or don't. Don't drag it out."
This proposal would give the new university USF Poly's property, licenses, associated revenues, contracts, balances, appropriations, foundation money and other funds from USF. And it authorizes the University of Florida — not USF — to serve in an advisory role. Lynn says that's because of UF's excellence in STEM fields, or science, technology, engineering and math.
USF would have to allow USF Poly students, who fought hard against a split, to graduate with a USF degree.
Senators discussed the bill for about 15 minutes. Only a few spoke.
Oelrich wondered why the bill wasn't vetted in the Senate's higher education committee, which he chairs.
Because it's a budget issue, Lynn said.
"So we've established the need for another university?" Oelrich asked.
"It's been talked about," Lynn answered, referring to the Board of Governors' November meeting.
The bill still needs approval by the full Senate and House and by Gov. Rick Scott before becoming a reality.
A USF spokesman said the university will continue working to implement the Board of Governors' guidelines in the interim.
Genshaft initially wanted the Lakeland campus to remain part of the system but has since pledged to help it break free.
Alexander, who has publicly pushed for a new state university in Polk County since last summer, did not attend Wednesday's meeting and did not return a call seeking comment. But as USF Poly's biggest backer, he clearly influenced the move.
The creation of the university was placed in a budget conforming bill, which changes state law to carry out how the Legislature wants money spent. Senators have criticized the volume of conforming bills in recent years, noting that they have started to stray from their primary purpose and receive scant scrutiny.
Senate President Mike Haridopolos signaled ahead of the 2012 session that leaders might steer away from using conforming bills to pass substantial legislation: "We can improve that part of the process," he told reporters.
Wednesday's bill earned quick disapproval from Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. Fasano has been critical of the push for independence for USF Poly.
"This is so irresponsible, this move by Chairman Alexander and anybody else that's behind it," Fasano said.
Asked where this bill came from, Lynn said she and her staff wrote it.
And why go this route?
"Conforming bills appear, you know," Lynn said. "And things happen."
Times/Herald staff writer Katie Sanders contributed to this report. Kim Wilmath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.