Friday, May 25, 2018
Education

Florida is one step closer to getting a 12th university

TALLAHASSEE — The creation of Florida's 12th university has cleared its second-to-last hurdle, with both the House and Senate approving the move with nominal resistance.

Now Gov. Rick Scott is all that stands between the University of South Florida's branch campus in Lakeland splitting away. If Scott signs off on the move, Florida Polytechnic University will be born — starting fresh without accreditation, students or buildings on its campus.

The move was a top priority of exiting Lake Wales Republican Sen. JD Alexander. It diverts from a USF Polytechnic independence plan already laid out by the Florida Board of Governors, which is tasked with overseeing the state university system.

Discussion of SB 1994 in both the House and Senate was brief, and opposition was sparse.

Only two Democrats spoke against it in the House. Rep. Dwight Bullard of Miami said he doubted that there was room for another school in a year in which universities were absorbing $300 million in cuts and students were expected to pay more in tuition. "It's the wrong time and the wrong place," Bullard said.

Rep. James Waldman of Coconut Creek said the university hadn't been vetted by the House.

"We know this is a member project from the other side," Waldman said. "It might be a great idea. I just don't know."

The House approved the bill 86-31, mostly along party lines.

Questions in the Senate centered on costs.

This year, the new Florida Polytechnic is simply taking over the budget previously allocated to USF Poly. But Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville, wondered how the university would be funded in the long-term.

Sen. Evelyn Lynn, the Ormond Beach Republican who chairs the Senate's higher education committee where the bill first appeared last month, acknowledged that in future years the new university would require new dollars. She didn't say how much.

Sens. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, questioned Lynn about Poly's overall budget cut compared to USF Tampa's.

Poly got cut 19 percent — its budget dropping to $22 million from last year's $27 million, when it was still under USF. This year USF Tampa got cut 21 percent, Lynn said. Additionally, USF Tampa will get an extra $10 million to educate the existing students at USF Poly, keeping them under USF's umbrella until they graduate.

"So there's $10 million for the USF students, then $22 million for Polytech, which right now doesn't have any students," Dockery said.

In the Senate, the bill passed 36-4, with Oelrich, Dockery, Fasano and Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, voting no.

What Gov. Scott will do is anyone's guess. He has said he favors the independence path already laid out by the Board of Governors. But he said this week that he still hadn't made up his mind.

"I sat down with JD Alexander the other day," Scott said, "and he was telling me his reason why he thinks it ought to happen."

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

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