TALLAHASSEE — The first budget confrontation of the legislative session emerged Tuesday when Gov. Rick Scott declared his opposition to an 8 percent tuition increase at state colleges and universities that Republican lawmakers support.
"I don't believe in tuition hikes," Scott said. "We have to do what the private sector has done and what every family has done and that's tighten our belts. … That's the first thing I want to focus on, is how we can reduce our costs rather than how do we raise tuition."
The House Appropriations Committee is expected to vote today on a preliminary budget of $69.2 billion that includes an 8 percent tuition hike — the same as in the current year's budget, which Scott signed into law last May without objecting to a tuition hike.
Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, who chairs the House budget panel, issued a statement defending the House's support for a tuition increase.
"The cost of postsecondary education in Florida is almost the lowest in the nation," Grimsley said. "Allowing tuition increases helps keep Florida nationally competitive."
Grimsley said Florida ranks 45th out of 50 states in the cost of undergraduate tuition, now about $184 per credit hour or $5,531 for a full year of 30 credit hours. The 8 percent increase to base tuition by the Legislature last year totaled $7.65 per credit hour. The universities tacked on another 7 percent to make a $9.16 total hike, or $275.10 for a full year. Tuition has increased every year for the past six years in Florida.
Scott flatly rejected the logic that tuition needs to increase because it's too low.
"I want the cost of living in this state to be lower than other states. I don't want it to be higher," Scott said. "Would you think that way in business?"
He recalled having to pay his way through community college in Missouri and the "uproar" that ensued when tuition rose by $20 a semester. "It costs money, and I want everybody to be able to afford an education," Scott said.
The Senate has not prepared its budget but support for a tuition increase exists there, too. Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, who chairs the budget subcommittee on higher education, disagreed with Scott.
"I have great concern because we're cutting back on dollars, and education has been cutting back every single year for the last four years now, and to come one more year where we have to reduce money and say 'no tuition increases' is very difficult," Lynn said.
Lynn noted that state universities still have the option of raising differential tuition. She said she's more concerned about Florida's state colleges because they emphasize programs to train the workforce and have open-door acceptance policies. "That's accountability, affordability and accessibility right there," Lynn said.
"They're losing enrollment, things are going down, that's just the way it is right now, and they are also being reduced in dollars," Lynn said. "So I think perhaps I would like to see a small tuition increase. Having it held at zero is very hard when we are among the lowest in the country."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.