TAMPA — Gov. Charlie Crist on Thursday called for legislators to turbocharge Florida's ability to create high-paying jobs by adding $100 million to the university system's budget.
Good idea, said legislators, but where's the money?
"As they say, optimism doesn't pay the bills," said Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, the vice chairman of the Senate Higher Education Appropriations Committee.
The announcement was the second time this week Crist left legislators scratching their heads over a proposed increase in education spending in the face of a looming budget deficit.
Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, earlier this week said universities are likely to face cuts, not significant hikes. And House Speaker-designate Dean Cannon said the university funding proposal is ambitious.
"You can't look at any budget item in a vacuum; they all impact all the other priorities," said Cannon, R-Winter Park. "There are components of some of the things that Gov. Crist has proposed that sound good. Our job is to assemble a budget that reflects what revenues we have available and spend them wisely."
Still, Crist was upbeat when he and university system chancellor Frank Brogan unveiled the "New Florida" initiative at the University of South Florida.
Flanked by university presidents and members of the state's Board of Governors, Crist said, "this $100 million continues our commitment toward reconfiguring Florida's economy."
"Economic development, an innovation economy and a knowledge-based economy: That's what the university system is all about," he said.
Crist's proposal does not call for the Legislature to raise Florida's base tuition rate for in-state undergraduates. But individual universities could raise the other part of tuition, the so-called differential fees that vary from school to school.
Crist's $7.1 billion plan for higher education also includes $67 million more for the state's 28 community colleges to meet rising enrollment without raising tuition.
While Crist talked only of next year, Brogan proposes adding $1.75 billion in recurring state funding to Florida's 11 public universities over the next five to seven years.
Under Brogan's proposal, half of the new state funding would be spent developing degrees in science, technology, engineering, math and medicine.
The other half would be earmarked for degree programs that foster regional and statewide development: business, nursing, computing, construction, architecture and education.
By 2015, proponents say, Florida could expect to see 25,000 additional college degrees awarded annually and 2,500 new faculty members bringing in $500 million a year in research funding.
The Board of Governors says it will measure the university system's results in specific areas such as graduation rates.
Still, legislative leaders question whether the money is there for Crist's plan. The shortfall for next year's state budget has been projected at $1 billion to $3 billion.
Crist, however, said he expects growing sales tax and document stamp receipts to add $2 billion more to the state budget than previously expected.
"We're starting to get those additional revenues, and that gives us more flexibility," he said.
On Monday, Crist also mentioned the additional $2 billion when he unveiled proposed increases to school spending for prekindergarten through high school.
That proposal also banked on using $433 million from a gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida that has yet to win the approval of lawmakers.