Sunday, June 24, 2018
Education

PolitiFact Florida: Understanding the USF budget battle

TALLAHASSEE — Students from the University of South Florida traveled to Tallahassee on Wednesday to protest funding cuts that they say singled out their school. But Senate leaders say USF isn't being singled out at all.

Who is right?

The answer depends on how you look at the budget numbers, how the school's money can be redistributed among its branch campuses and whether Senate leaders are successful in breaking off USF Polytechnic in Lakeland into the state's 12th university.

Senators, relying on a staff handout that breaks down $400 million in budget cuts for the entire university system, say USF is in the same boat as two other universities, Florida Atlantic and Florida International. The three institutions are facing a nearly 33 percent funding cut.

In fact, said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, USF's cut is less than the University of Central Florida's. UCF faces a cut of 34 percent, according to the staff document. "If you look at the numbers, the group of schools are being treated in a very similar way," Lynn said.

By the end of the day, Senate budget writers did vote to restore $25 million to USF's budget — money that had been sequestered so that USF would cooperate in its split with USF Polytechnic.

But the move only solves one issue because USF officials say the Senate is mischaracterizing its proposed cuts.

The Senate calculation of the cut includes funding for the USF Polytechnic campus. A proposal to split off USF Poly would take that campus away from USF, and take its money — about $27 million — with it.

So while the Senate numbers make it seem like the university received a comparable cut to other universities, the Senate is starting with a larger number to calculate that percentage drop. Instead of that cut being absorbed over four campuses, it would really be three: Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee.

A critical factor here is that unlike other universities, USF is a system comprising four campuses. Each campus receives its own budget allocation.

Take away the system-wide look and you get a much dimmer picture for USF Tampa. Its flagship campus, home to 40,000 students, had a much bigger cut than the other state universities at $79 million.

That makes the cut about 44 percent, or about 10 percent higher than the next-highest university, UCF, according to the university's analysis.

"We understand that there's going to be reductions," said John Long, USF's chief operating officer. "We are fighting that it needs to be a fair and equitable reduction across the state university system."

The cut would have been higher, at about 58 percent, had not the Senate Budget Committee restored $25 million funding Wednesday.

The Senate plan also comes with what USF officials deem an "unfunded mandate": They have to absorb USF Polytechnic professors, students and staff right away, before Florida Polytechnic comes to life.

The Senate does not provide extra money to pay for these staffers, which would cost another $18 million based on the branch's current payroll, Long said.

"The current bill transfers all the cost associated with USF Polytechnic but none of the dollars to fund it," Long said.

USF also would lose $6 million for its fledgling pharmacy program, which is funded through USF Poly's budget.

Total impact, according to Long, would be around $103 million.

Another problem with the Senate's thinking, according to USF, is that the system does not distribute state dollars; the money goes independently to each university through separate line items in the state budget.

PolitiFact Florida asked Lynn and Senate budget chief JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, about USF's breakdown, which neither had seen.

"They haven't talked to us," Lynn told PolitiFact Florida. "No one's met with me."

Alexander acknowledged the disproportionate cut to the Tampa campus but said USF could spread the money around to the other branches. He remained firm when told USF officials say they cannot do that.

"They can do all kinds of things if they want to," Alexander said.

While the Senate's numbers alarm USF advocates, the House still has its say, and Speaker-designate Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, is among powerful Tampa Bay lawmakers who expressed disapproval at the Senate's approach. On Wednesday, Weatherford said that he was pleased senators dropped their plan to freeze that $25 million in contingency but that it was still just a "step in the right direction."

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