TALLAHASSEE — The presidents of Florida's state universities have an offer for the Legislature: Give us $118 million and we won't raise tuition.
"What we're asking for this year is a significant investment from the state, tied to specific goals to universities," said University of West Florida president Judy Bense during Wednesday's news conference. "With an investment provided for our students, we promise not to seek one penny of a tuition increase this year."
This new funding would be on top of restoring a $300 million cut the Legislature imposed last year, something lawmakers are already building into the budget. The $118 million would be distributed to the 12 state universities according to performance-based goals, the presidents propose.
Gov. Rick Scott, returning from a Colombian trade mission Wednesday, issued a statement praising the universities' position against tuition increases without mentioning their request for more tax dollars.
"We are pleased to share this important goal with many of Florida's finest higher education leaders who are committed to holding the line on tuition," Scott said. "We look forward to working closely with them as we put together a proposed budget and other policies for the upcoming legislative session."
University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft said the state is moving away from previous efforts to increase Florida tuition so that it is closer to the national average. Scott's opposition to tuition hikes means that is no longer feasible, she said.
"We're in a situation where the governor is very opposed to an increase in tuition and we understand," she said. "And we're also concerned about the strains" on students.
Sen. Joe Negron, who chairs the Senate's budget committee, said he supports boosting university funding, although it's too early to say how it will be done or how much.
"I have believed for a long time that the state spends too much money in health and human services and not enough in higher education," said Negron, R-Stuart. "And I believe that we should budget additional resources for our universities, which I believe don't get the credit that they deserve for economic development and the well-being of our state."
House Appropriations Chairman Seth McKeel said the state's budget is expected to improve, but there are pressures and challenges.
"We look forward to working with the presidents on any proposals they have on the floor," the Lakeland Republican said.
The universities' offer is separate from another money-related issue likely to be raised by the University of Florida and Florida State University. Both universities again are advocating for "pre-eminence" status that will allow them unlimited ability to increase tuition. Scott vetoed such a bill earlier this year because he's against tuition hikes.
FSU president Eric Barron said pre-eminence is "a different topic that should be addressed differently" than the no-tuition pledge the universities agreed to. UF president Bernie Machen added that the pre-eminence proposal is more complex than just the tuition component.
"In fact, the major benefit of that bill for the state was to set up guidelines and benchmarks to identify excellence in our state universities," Machen said. "We're in favor of that, the Board of Governors remains in favor of that. The tuition aspect of it was simply one mechanism that could be used to receive new resources."
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