TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott continued to pound against university tuition increases on Friday, saying in a column published on a conservative news website that raising tuition is the same as raising taxes.
"We owe it to the families in our state who are paying tuition today and those planning to pay tuition for the next generation of Floridians to be direct: Raising tuition is a tax increase," Scott wrote in the National Review Online. "And, unfortunately, it is a tax increase that directly affects whether Floridians can achieve the American dream of earning a higher-education diploma."
If true, count Scott among the tax raisers.
While Scott proudly vetoed a 3 percent tuition hike last month, his 2011 budget included an 8 percent hike for students, at a cost of roughly $50 million. Scott also approved a 5 percent tuition increase for state colleges in 2012, saying that "colleges remain best positioned to weigh the needs of their institutions against the burden of increased student costs."
When asked Friday about the discrepancies between his recent words and his past actions, Scott blamed the Legislature. He said the 2011 tuition increase was also included in a second, broader bill that he was reluctant to veto.
He said he would veto the same bill if it appeared on his desk today.
"For nearly three years, I have watched the Legislature aggressively fight to increase tuition on our families," Scott said in a statement to the Times/Herald. "If this bill were in front of me today, I would veto it. If the Legislature tries to do this maneuver next year, I will veto it."
Scott's seeming tuition about-face is the latest in a string of shifting policy statements. Already, Scott has offered differing positions on everything from his support for Medicaid expansion, to money for public schools, to voting rules, to tightening immigration laws.
The change in rhetoric is all about getting re-elected in 2014, said Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale. "He's not governing, he's campaigning and using the budget and using policy to campaign on," Smith said.
Lawmakers included 8 percent tuition increases in the budget in 2009 and 2010 and sought another 8 percent hike in 2011. But it was the first time the decision fell to Scott, who took office in January 2011.
Months before signing the budget, Scott said universities deserved more flexibility in setting tuition, considering that Florida's tuition rates are among the cheapest in the country.
"There's two sides to it. Step one, we have to make sure we don't waste dollars and keep tuition low as possible," Scott said in March 2011. "The other side is we've got to make sure we have the dollars in our system so we can have the best professors, the best system. It's both sides."
After signing the tuition increase into law, Scott tried to distance himself from it.
In November 2011, Scott's then-spokesman Brian Burgess issued a memo saying the governor had nothing to do with the 8 percent increase. The memo came after some news outlets reported students were protesting "Gov. Rick Scott's college tuition increase."
Burgess said Scott did not have the constitutional authority to veto the tuition increase in the budget. But Scott did just that this year.
In 2012, Scott continued to toe both sides of the line.
"I don't believe in tuition hikes," he told reporters in January 2012. "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."
Later that year, he vetoed a bill that would have allowed the University of Florida and Florida State University unlimited flexibility to raise tuition.
But he allowed a 5 percent tuition increase for community colleges to remain in the budget, saying schools needed resources to maintain high quality programs and growing enrollment.
"I continue to believe that the local boards of trustees at our colleges remain best positioned to weigh the needs of their institutions against the burden of increased student costs," Scott wrote in his letter explaining budget decisions. "Therefore I have not vetoed the tuition increase authorized by the Florida Legislature."
This year, Scott was adamant about opposing tuition increases and surprised no one by vetoing a 3 percent increase proposed primarily by the House. Students would have been asked to pay about $3 more a credit hour, on average $90 more a year.
He also has pressured university presidents to reject an automatic tuition adjustment for inflation, which would amount to a 1.7 percent increase.
"I have consistently fought to hold the line on tuition, and to stop any tax increases, in Florida," Scott wrote to university leaders last month. "I would be proud for you to join me in our fight to hold the line on tuition."
Tia Mitchell can be reached at [email protected]