Sunday, December 10, 2017
Education

JD Alexander lobbies Rick Scott to sign off on USF Poly split

TALLAHASSEE — The powerful lawmaker who led the effort to create a new hometown state university made a pilgrimage to the Capitol on Thursday to lobby Gov. Rick Scott to support the idea.

Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, led a seven-member delegation urging Scott to sign a bill to convert the USF Polytechnic campus in Lakeland into Florida Polytechnic, the state's 12th university.

After the hourlong meeting, Alexander said he tried to make the case that a school focused on science, technology, engineering and math degrees would help Florida's economy.

"I believe we made good arguments about the ability of this institution to focus in a way that can be successful for us, as an economy and as a state," Alexander said.

The Republican senator, a University of Florida graduate, began his own collegiate career at Georgia Tech. He said too many students are getting degrees from state schools that don't help them obtain good jobs.

"There's lots of those programs that are not producing jobs for students," he said. "They go out, they can't get jobs, they've finished getting their degree and they've got a ton of debt."

Alexander said Scott listened closely but did not tip his hand. Scott has said previously that he supports the expansion of science and technology degrees to give Florida a more skilled workforce, but he also has questioned whether the state can afford another university.

"What I like about Polytech is the fact that we ought to have as much focus as we can in the state on science, technology, engineering and math. That's a real positive for me," Scott said earlier Thursday. "We've got to make sure we can afford a 12th university … you've got to look at the benefits of doing it, and you've got to look at the costs of doing it and see if our budget can afford it."

With Alexander on Thursday were two local technology business executives: David Robinson of DSM Technology Consultants and Ingram Leedy of Elephant Outlook; leaders of the Lakeland and Winter Haven chambers of commerce; and Wayne Watters, a Polk County resident and Tallahassee lobbyist who has helped Alexander mobilize local support for the new university.

Also present was Marshall Goodman, who was removed as chancellor of USF Poly last December by USF president Judy Genshaft. Alexander said Goodman was there because he and his staff prepared the original business plan for a separate school — a plan that was criticized by USF officials for being overly optimistic in enrollment projections and cost estimates.

Goodman earned his own share of criticism after news broke last year that he pledged $500,000 for a documentary on a new USF Poly campus, spent $10,000 on life-sized Star Wars statues for the campus and hired two of his sons. In light of that, two state senators called for an audit into the campus' spending under Goodman's watch. They had not received it by the time Goodman was let go.

"Sounds like Goodman wants his old job back, to become the first president of an unaccredited state university with no student body," said one of those senators, Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. "If the governor sticks to his beliefs, in how he believes government should be run, he should veto that bill without hesitation."

The Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system, already voted last year to allow USF Poly to become Florida Poly — but only after meeting certain benchmarks, including separate accreditation, a minimum enrollment and completion of the first few buildings of its new campus.

Alexander used his considerable clout as Senate budget chairman to accelerate the timetable to July 1. SB 1994 would create Florida Poly right away, with USF Poly's budget of about $27 million in state funds.

Meanwhile, the bill would give USF $10 million to help it absorb existing USF Poly faculty, staff and students, and $6 million more for its pharmacy program, which was previously funded through the Lakeland branch.

It comes at a time when the 11 existing institutions are preparing to absorb a $300 million cut in state support — a decision Alexander championed. It's the fifth year in a row that lawmakers have doled out significant cuts to higher education.

Scott has received more than 1,300 e-mails on the Poly bill, with support outpacing opposition by about a 3-to-1 margin, according to the governor's office. Some USF students have urged Scott to veto the bill, complaining that they were not consulted and should have been.

Scott has until April 21 to make a decision. A veto would be a major political defeat for Alexander, who is in the final year of his political career because of term limits and has no plans to seek office again.

Times/Herald staff writers Kim Wilmath and Brittany Davis contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

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