Signaling a new era of cooperation between the state university system and Florida lawmakers, the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees public higher education, has unanimously voted to pull out of a lawsuit challenging the tuition-setting authority of the Legislature.
The still-pending suit, initiated by former Florida Gov. Bob Graham and a group of supporters in 2007, seeks to strip the Legislature of its power to raise state university tuition. Lawmakers historically have kept Florida in-state tuition rates far below the national average, which has pleased parents and students but prompted criticism that state universities are cash-strapped and unable to fulfill their educational goals.
Florida's new university system chancellor, former Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, has made withdrawing from the lawsuit a priority. Brogan hopes it will prompt the other parties to also abandon the suit. On Monday, six months into the job, he got what he wanted.
Said Board of Governors Chairwoman Ava Parker: "After many months of discussion with our legislators, I'm just really pleased that we have reached a point where we can put this lawsuit behind us."
Graham, who made education a priority as governor, could not be reached for comment, so it is unclear whether he and his allies will pursue the suit without the Board of Governors. Regardless, the board's decision to opt out will almost certainly weaken its chances.
The suit's demise could make the Legislature more open to universities' pleas for money. On Monday, lawmakers reacted positively to the Board of Governors' decision.
"This is a hand of friendship and cooperation that we are happy to grasp," said state Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican. Gaetz had previously said he wasn't interested in universities' sales pitch for state dollars until the lawsuit goes away.
Gov. Charlie Crist, too, hailed Monday's developments, calling the board's action "welcome news for all Floridians."
Though the once-strained relationship between the university system and lawmakers appears to be warming, the budget realities of Tallahassee this year are still quite cold. The 2010-11 Florida budget forecast calls for another $2 billion deficit, meaning higher education will need lots of friends in the Capitol if colleges are to avoid budget cuts.
Crist has proposed boosting higher-education funding by $100 million this year to build research and education capacity in science, engineering, math and medicine.
Over the next five years, the Board of Governors hopes to double the funding for state schools. Part of the money would come from a new brand of tuition created by university presidents and the Legislature in 2007. Known as tuition differential, the new charge is a fee that schools can tack on in addition to base tuition.
Base tuition and tuition differential can rise by a combined 15 percent annually — meaning if state lawmakers pass a 5 percent increase, schools can increase tuition another 10 percent through this new fee.
These new rules helped set the stage for an end to the fight over tuition authority.
The thrust of universities' frustration was an inability to raise tuition during lean budget years. The Graham lawsuit sought to take tuition-setting power away from lawmakers because of this frustration.
With tuition differential, the previous tug-of-war over who can raise tuition has in effect been settled. Universities and the Legislature now can.
Gaetz, the state senator, was reluctant to credit this new fee with ending all the infighting. He singled out Brogan for ushering in a more cordial atmosphere.
"The people of Florida expect us to work together," he said. "And we will."
Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.