Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Education

Gov. Rick Scott asks university presidents for promise not to seek tuition increases

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott has all but guaranteed a veto of the 3 percent tuition increase in the state budget and he recently reached out to an unlikely group to aid his cause.

All 12 state university presidents were asked to sign a letter initiated by the governor's office that says they do not want more tuition revenue. In the process, they would have rejected an automatic 1.7 percent increase to cover the cost of inflation.

"As a result of this (year's) historical support for state universities, we are pleased to report that we will not be seeking any tuition increases for the upcoming school year and intend to maintain tuition at current levels," reads a draft of the letter, which is signed "INSERT PRESIDENT SIGNATURE" and addressed to Scott.

Scott's office did not respond to a request for comment about the origin of the letter. University system chancellor Frank Brogan and several school presidents also declined interview requests.

University presidents participated in a hastily organized private conference call Friday afternoon to discuss the letter.

They were given a 4 p.m. Friday deadline to sign the letter, which came and went with no collective agreement from the 12 presidents.

School leaders have mostly tried to stay out of the tug-of-war between House Speaker Will Weatherford and Scott on tuition. Weatherford and the House insisted on including a tuition increase in the budget, worth $18 million to state universities, despite Scott's clear opposition.

Universities didn't ask for more tuition, and they are banking on Scott to veto the increase that is currently in the budget. But they are also grateful that Weatherford agrees that they deserve extra revenue and wouldn't turn down the money if it comes their way.

"I think they would tell you they need the resources," Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said in March.

According to state law, even if Scott vetoes a tuition increase, schools will get some new revenue. The law says the fee per credit hour should at a minimum rise to keep up with inflation.

One of the reasons some universities balked at signing the letter was because they felt Scott was pressuring them to not only support his veto but also pledge not to adhere to that provision, which amounts to a loss of $10.5 million this year.

Scott has less than a week left before he must sign or veto the state's $74.5 billion budget. In the final days before acting on the budget, the governor can wield immense influence because of his line-item veto authority.

The governor will likely do the honors either Monday or Friday because he will be on a trade mission to Chile in between.

Included in the budget are millions of dollars in construction and other spending projects for universities, which could fall victim to Scott's veto.

Despite universities' pleas for increased revenue, embracing a tuition increase would put the school presidents in square opposition with the governor. Scott, who regularly avoids taking a strong position on several issues, has been resolute when it comes to the cost of higher education.

"As you know, I've been against tuition increases," Scott said last week. "The tuition at our universities has gone up about 70 percent in the last five years. It's really impacting our families, and I worry about families like mine growing up that didn't have a lot of money for tuition."

In the past, Scott has called tuition increases a "tax" on working families. The average cost of tuition at Florida's public universities is about $3,000 per year and a 3 percent increase is about $90. Other fees can increase the total cost of college by thousands of dollars.

Lawmakers agreed this year to restore $300 million in funding to the university system, which university presidents said would help them avoid further tuition increases. They have already pledged not to seek additional increases from the state Board of Governors, which has the authority to raise tuition up to 15 percent.

Schools built their 2013-14 budgets around the assumption that no new tuition revenue would come their way. University of Florida president Bernie Machen said in April that he understood both sides of the tuition increase debate.

"The House is trying to make the point that for the longer term strategy for higher ed tuition has to be a part of the conversation," he said. "The people who are saying, 'No tuition increase now,' are saying, 'We just don't think now is the time to be talking about a tuition increase.' And you can make a good case, given all the new resources that are coming our way this year, that this might be the year where there wouldn't be a tuition increase."

Scott's decision to ask university presidents to support his tuition veto could get him in trouble with the organization that accredits state universities. Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, said Scott put the presidents in a tough position by taking a request to them instead of the various boards of trustees.

Schools can lose their accreditation if SACS determines that their boards are not operating independently of outside political interference.

"He can tell the presidents whatever he wants, but the presidents should be acting based upon the direction that they're getting from their board, not the direction from the governor … to not get into trouble with us," Wheelan said.

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