MIAMI — Florida International University leaders were eager for one of their hometown legislators to become speaker of the House, and Marco Rubio delivered.
"We had a great year," FIU's lobbyist said of millions in new funding in 2007, crediting Rubio and the Miami-Dade delegation.
The following year, as term limits forced Rubio to exit the Legislature and contemplate his next political move, FIU offered him a $69,000, part-time job that was never publicly advertised.
Critics questioned Rubio's soft landing as FIU trustees grappled with a $32 million budget shortfall that led to tuition hikes and the loss of 23 degree programs and 200 jobs.
Then came uncomfortable comparisons to another Republican House speaker — Ray Sansom — who steered $35 million to a Panhandle college and then took a job there.
Rubio weathered the criticism and by many accounts is a popular, engaging political science professor. But as his U.S. Senate campaign gains ground on a message of fiscal conservatism, his job at FIU is under increased scrutiny.
It illuminates the sway a handful of top elected officials have over taxpayer money and reflects a state college and university system that has become a friendly employment service for lawmakers who once oversaw their budgets.
Rubio denied playing favorites, saying FIU's overall funding was not out of line with other universities.
"I know it was a big deal for us coming in as speaker," he said of his hometown's expectations. "I don't feel like we unfairly benefited one area of the state over another, one school over another."
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In the years before becoming speaker, Rubio did not champion funding for FIU. But when he took the House reins, the university had a new ally.
In 2007, the university was awarded a $15 million hurricane center that was one of a handful of projects legislators plucked from a list for immediate funding. Rubio pushed for inclusion of the FIU project, which was originally to get funding over three years starting in 2009.
And thanks in part to Rubio, FIU got another early start in 2008 — $2.5 million for a student academic support center — though some other schools' projects got moved up as well.
That same year, there were 52 projects on a list for potential matching grant awards but only nine were funded. Of those, five were from FIU, for a total of $1.3 million, including its Frost Art Museum and graduate school of business.
"He was a champion and was in a position to be helpful but he had a lot of good company," said Steve Sauls, FIU's lobbyist. "Leadership is always able to do more than rank and file, but we worked within the system."
When it came to enhancing FIU's prestige, no project compared to a new medical school. For years the school struggled to get approval, facing criticism that it was too costly and the wrong approach to a doctor shortage. As a representative, Rubio himself was skeptical.
"It would be great, but it's a real tough sell," he told the Miami Herald in 2003. "It's not like we have bags of money lying around."
But in early 2006, officials signed off on new medical schools for FIU and the University of Central Florida. In 2007, FIU got more than $5 million in recurring dollars, followed by another $6 million in 2008.
The handout request was significantly less than what the Board of Governors had requested in 2008, an example, Rubio said, where the school was not always pleased with him.
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The 38-year-old lawyer and first Cuban-American to lead the Florida House is among about 20 current and former legislators who have found work at Florida's colleges and universities, a growing source of friction as budget resources dwindle.
"I had reservations about his hiring then, and I stand by what I said," says Bruce Hauptli, an FIU philosophy professor who served as faculty senate president in 2008. "It doesn't make sense in a budget crisis."
Rubio acknowledged that legislator jobs deserve scrutiny. "But they are all different. They are not all the same. … I'm proud of the job I'm doing."
His salary was reduced to $40,000 in late August, as he stepped up his Senate campaign and requested a lighter workload that did not include research. He now works about 14 hours a week as a "visiting distinguished service professor."
Financial terms of his contract say private donations should subsidize at least half of his salary the first year, and 75 percent the second year. Rubio covered all but $10,000 of his salary and health insurance costs by raising $125,000 over the past two years, according to Dario Moreno, who directs FIU's Metropolitan Center. Moreno said he could not identify private donors.
"My vision was to expose students to someone who was directly involved in politics, to combine the practice of politics with the theory of politics, and Marco has done very well,'' Moreno said. Several students said in their evaluations that Moreno and Rubio made a great teaching team.
But the two interests have clashed.
This summer, after Rubio's contract had expired and before it renewed for a second year, Rubio paid his boss Moreno $12,000 to conduct polling for his Senate campaign. When the Times/Herald asked about the payment last week, Moreno said he would end the practice.
"I don't want to have any hint of a conflict of interest,'' Moreno said, though he added, "There wasn't any kind of quid pro quo.''
Rubio disputes a conflict existed. The decision to use Moreno was made well after he took the FIU job, he said. "We just used the pollster that we trusted in and at a time when we really couldn't get anybody to do work for us."
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History shows that the system rewards the most powerful lawmakers. Rubio's counterpart, Senate President Ken Pruitt, helped his local college in a big way during his tenure. In 2008, Indian River Community College got $18.5 million for a science and math center in Port St. Lucie. And earlier this year, Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, used his position as top budget writer to add millions in extra funding for the University of South Florida's Lakeland campus. Alexander said he was different because he was open about the favoritism.
Then there is Sansom.
As Rubio's handpicked budget chief, the Destin Republican was able to steer $35 million to Northwest Florida State College. Earlier this year, a grand jury indicted him on allegations he disguised a $6 million airplane hangar for a developer friend as an education facility. Sansom denies wrongdoing; the case is still in court.
Rubio has said he was unaware of the maneuver, as has his U.S. Senate rival, Gov. Charlie Crist, who did not veto the project even though it was labeled a budget "turkey" for sidestepping the normal process.
While Rubio may have played a role in getting FIU money early, all of the school's projects had been scheduled for funding at some point by the Board of Governors, a stark difference with Sansom.
But the fact is powerful lawmakers in Tallahassee are in a position to do favors. The Sansom grand jury saved its harshest criticism for the Legislature itself. "The appropriation process that gives unbridled discretion to the president of the Senate, speaker of the House of Representatives and appropriation chairmen needs to be changed," a report read.
Asked if there could be improvements to the system, Rubio said, "In some years it works better than others. It really depends how motivated people are to influence funding in regards to politics," he said. "There are always going to be flaws in the system, unfortunately."
Alex Leary can be reached at email@example.com. Beth Reinhard can be reached at breinhard@MiamiHerald.com.