MIAMI — Running through every discussion among the Florida Board of Governors on Wednesday was the dismal undercurrent of shrinking state support.
Naturally, board members talked about the downward trend when they considered the state university system's legislative budget requests. The issue was hammered home more on universities' construction and maintenance projects. It hung like a cloud over proposals to create two dental schools and expand an existing one.
And it will likely be front and center when the board reconvenes today for the second part of its meeting, taking place at Florida International University.
A big chunk of Wednesday's talks focused on the legislative budget requests for the upcoming session, which total $3.99 billion — a 14.8 percent increase over current appropriations. That's mostly because of two items: $150 million for the New Florida initiative, a program aimed at utilizing higher education as an economic driver; and $238 million for a major gift matching program, which may prove a tough sell to strapped state leaders.
Aside from all that is PECO, or Public Education Capital Outlay funding. That's the money universities use to build new educational buildings and update existing ones. Wednesday's discussion left little doubt as to which of those options would be prioritized.
State university system chancellor Frank Brogan compared the situation to triage.
"You take the bleeders first," Brogan said. "While I love new buildings … when it comes to the issue of repairs and maintenance, in a triage, that's our bleeder."
Then there was this observation from board member John Temple: "I wish we would have known it would be this bad when we approved all that money for USF Polytechnic," he said. "We've got to finish what we started."
The sentiment hung in the air during presentations by Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University and the University of Central Florida, whose leaders both want to build dental schools. The University of Florida, the only state university with such a school, told the board it wants to expand.
The plans are not yet ready for a vote, as questions remain: Does Florida need more dentists? In light of the fix-what-you've-got-now philosophy echoed by the board on Wednesday, is now the right time to build?
Today's hot topic will be USF Polytechnic, which got $35 million in PECO funds last year for a new campus. It was the only new university building project that was not vetoed by Florida Gov. Rick Scott.
This summer a group of Polk County business and civic leaders (including J.D. Alexander, the powerful state Senate budget chairman who championed the money for the new building) asked the Board of Governors to consider splitting the Lakeland campus off from the USF system. Today USF Poly's regional chancellor, Marshall Goodman, will give a presentation on what makes the campus unique.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.