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Florida lawmakers grapple over hundreds of millions in higher ed spending

Here's a big item on the Legislature's to-do list: Agreeing how much to spend on higher education.

Counting everything from classrooms to construction projects, colleges and universities come out about $500 million ahead under the Senate budget.

That's a big number, and higher education spending remains a top sticking point in negotiations between the two chambers, House Budget Chairwoman Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, said this week.

Naturally, colleges and universities, which have seen their funding cut over the last three years, are hoping to see the Senate's version prevail — even though it, too, is less than what they asked for.

"It's going to be a real hard pill to swallow if we have to live with the House numbers," said Victoria Hernandez, the director of government relations at Miami-Dade College.

Miami-Dade College and a handful of others would fare much better under the Senate's capital plan. The Senate spends far more than the House does on maintenance and construction projects — $120 million versus $49 million for universities and $135 million versus $35 million for colleges.

A few projects that stand out on the Senate's list:

• $45 million for the University of South Florida's future polytechnic campus in Lakeland.

• $15 million for University of Central Florida's physics and engineering buildings.

• $12.2 million for two projects at Polk State College.

• $17.9 million for Miami-Dade College's Hialeah campus.

The House proposes spending nothing on any of those projects — all of which were approved last year by the legislature but vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist.

Many of those projects have political patrons, from Sen. J.D. Alexander, the Lakeland Republican and budget chief who has championed the polytechnic campus and Polk State, to the Miami-Dade delegation, which routinely stands behind funding for its largest community college.

But college officials say the list of projects doesn't contain any real surprises. The program — known as Public Education Capital Outlay — is the same one that former House Speaker Ray Sansom used to get state funding for an airport building that a developer friend wanted to use for his private jet business.

"There aren't any turkeys on there," said Larry Bracken, director of governmental affairs for Pensacola College.

Over at Polk State, for instance, officials say they've been waiting for years to get their campus library fixed up. The project would get $10.2 million from the Senate, nothing from the House.

"It's just been in horrible shape for a long time," said spokesman David Steele.

The House plan is much lower because it stuck to the state's initial estimate for the pot of utility tax revenues that pay for facility maintenance and construction.

But the Senate assumes a larger pot of available funds, primarily by changing how the state calculated its bonding capacity. It also shifts about $30 million from the lottery and $15 million from general revenue into the program.

Both of legislators in charge of higher education spending — Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, and Rep. Marlene O'Toole, R-Lady Lake — say they think they can work out the details once their bosses tell them next week how much money they'll have to work with.

The one big item on which the House spends a lot more?

Bright Futures, the popular merit-based scholarship funded by the lottery and slated for changes next year. The House would raise the requirements to qualify; the Senate would lop $1,000 off the average awards.

The House puts $372 million toward the program compared with the Senate's $290 million.

O'Toole said Lynn wants to phase in the higher qualifications more gradually.

"And we'll probably do that," O'Toole said.

But as for the dollar amounts?

"We're not there yet," she said.

Times/Herald Bureau writers Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (850) 933-1321.

Fast Facts

Community colleges

House budget: $1.87 billion (includes 5 percent tuition hike)

Senate budget: $1.98 billion (includes 8 percent tuition hike)

Universities

House: $3.4 billion

Senate: $3.6 billion

• • •

University new capital projects

House: $0

Senate: $80.1 million

Board of Governors request: $66.2 million

Community college capital projects

House: $26.7 million

Senate: $127.3 million

Division of Florida Colleges request: $88.3 million

• • •

Capital project list by university

University of South Florida

House: $2.5 million

Senate: $48.5 million

Board of Governors: $34.7 million

University of Central Florida

House: $3.4 million

Senate: $17.3 million

Board of Governors: $8.8 million

Florida State University

House: $2.4 million

Senate: $1.8 million

Board of Governors: $8.9 million

University of Florida

House: $4.6 million

Senate: $5.3 million

Board of Governors: $8.3 million

• • •

Capital projects by college

Brevard Community College

House: $1.3 million

Senate: $16.4 million

Division of Florida Colleges: $2.7 million

Miami Dade College

House: $1.9 million

Senate: $17.95 million

Division of Florida Colleges $6.7 million

Polk State College

House: $1.99 million

Senate: $12.7 million

Division of Florida Colleges: $895,420

Florida lawmakers grapple over hundreds of millions in higher ed spending 04/21/11 [Last modified: Thursday, April 21, 2011 8:17pm]

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