TALLAHASSEE — A month after the Florida Board of Governors agreed to drop a lawsuit challenging the Legislature's authority to set tuition, lawmakers moved forward Friday on a bill that would allow education leaders to impose new student fees.
The bill, EPC 4, solidifies the lawsuit agreement reached by lawmakers and the Board of Governors after months of negotiations and years of hostile feuding.
"I can't overemphasize this enough, that the bill really represents a new era of trust," said Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, the sponsor. "It's frankly unprecedented."
But it also gives the Board of Governors new authority to establish fees and increase caps on fees, such as student activity or parking fees — a dramatic policy shift. Right now, only the Legislature can approve new fees. If the bill passes, the Legislature would still have the final say on base tuition.
In addition, the legislation seeks to create a Higher Education Coordinating Council, which would bring together the state's most powerful education leaders, such as the state education commissioner, state university chancellor, Florida college chancellor, executive director of the Commission for Independent Education, president of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida, and two business representatives — one appointed by the Senate president, and the other by the House speaker. The council would issue recommendations on tuition increases and new degree programs to the Board of Governors, the State Board of Education and the Legislature.
The bill earned widespread support from state education leaders long critical of the Legislature's higher education policies.
"We believe that this council will raise the visibility of issues critical to our students," said John Grosskopf, president of North Florida Community College.
Ava Parker, new chairwoman of the Board of Governors, said staffers spent months negotiating the terms of the lawsuit agreement prior to the bill's introduction this week.
"If we are not working together, then our system is losing," she said.
Former Gov. Bob Graham and a group of supporters angry with lawmakers' reluctance to raise historically low in-state tuition rates initiated the lawsuit in 2007. Graham still supports the lawsuit, said Robin Gibson, a Lake Wales lawyer representing the petitioners. Gibson said he will file a motion for summary judgment Monday.
Rep. Bill Heller, a Democrat who teaches at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, expressed concern that the lawsuit agreement could result in more fees for Florida families, but ultimately supported the measure.
"It gets everyone around the table," he said "It takes us away from fighting each other, but fighting for our students and our faculties."
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