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Lawmakers stress need for higher ed but warn of cuts

Jobs, jobs, jobs. Knowledge-based economy. High-tech research. The 2010 legislative session promises to be full of buzzwords and election-season hype — much of it centered around the mantra that elevating Florida's economy beyond orange groves and theme parks will take a committed investment in Florida's community colleges and universities. • "Universities are not merely centers for learning; they're economic engines," Senate President Jeff Atwater recently told reporters. • But science labs, professor salaries and research programs don't come cheap. And the 2010 session, as with recent years, will be marked by a budget gap of as much as $3 billion — and consternation over how best to bridge it.

So even if lawmakers want to invest more in higher education, they might not have the option. In fact, the very senators and representatives talking about universities as an "investment" warn that higher education will face the same cost-cutting as other state agencies and programs.

"I wish I could say it's off the table for any reductions," Atwater said. "But I don't know that I can realistically do that."

That hasn't stopped Gov. Charlie Crist from proposing a $7.1 billion higher education budget that calls for $100 million more in public university money and almost $70 million more for Florida's 28 state and community colleges — increases of 11 percent and 16 percent, respectively.

He announced the proposal the same day that the Board of Governors overseeing the 11 public universities unveiled its "New Florida" initiative. Based on a recent Florida Council of 100 report recommending an overhaul of K-20 education, "New Florida" calls for $1.75 billion in additional state funding over the next five years that is largely directed at producing more science, math and technology graduates.

Crist said his recommended increase in higher education funding is an important step. It comes a year after he pushed a higher tuition plan to help universities generate additional revenue following years of cuts worth more than $100-million systemwide.

"This additional investment continues our commitment to reconfiguring our economy," Crist said. "For Florida to continue to move forward, we've got to invest in education."

He and his budget director say the economy is starting to rebound, and they believe general revenue dollars will cover the extra money. Lawmakers call that outlook "optimistic" at best, unrealistic and impossible at worst.

"Look, a lot of the things in that Council of 100 report are expensive," said /a>. "We need to focus on the ideas in there that won't cost us or might even save us money."

At a recent meeting with House representatives, budget director Jerry McDaniel received a general thrashing that ended with the committee telling him that the governor's proposed budget is "useless" as they craft a budget for the coming year.

"If his numbers turn out to be true, well, that will be a happy day," said
Sen. Don Gaetz. "But we can't build a budget that way."

Gaetz, R-Niceville, said universities already got permission last year to raise tuition by up to 15 percent each year, a change that will generate nearly $40 million for the current budget year.

He and other lawmakers say universities and colleges must re-evaluate the money they already have, directing it from programs like philosophy and Slavic languages to science, math and technology to help boost the state's biotechnology and research profile.

"When the No. 1 degree granted is psychology and the No. 2 degree is political science, maybe before we ask $100 million more of taxpayers we should redeploy what we have," Gaetz said. "That way we make sure we're not sending graduates out with degrees that don't mean much."

Universities chancellor Frank Brogan, former education commissioner and lieutenant governor under Gov. Jeb Bush, said he understands that lawmakers want proof that their investment in colleges yields results.

So universities are embarking on a new push to carefully track and report the progress and success of their students, their degree programs, and their research.

"We are going to give you dashboard indicators so that you can look each year at how our universities are performing," Brogan told lawmakers recently. "What kind of degree programs are we offering, and do they make sense? What kind of research are we doing? And how is that translating into jobs and economic development?"

The Board of Governors maintains that an additional $1.75 billion in state funding will — by 2030 — result in 50,000 more graduates per year, $1.5 billion more research in annual research funding, and higher graduation and retention rates. Those improvements together, Brogan said, will make the Sunshine State more attractive to research firms and big business.

"If you give us this investment, this predictable funding, we can be a slingshot into the future economy," Brogan said.

He said students last year were "brave" to come out in support of higher tuition. "They stood up and said, 'We are willing to pay more to get more.' We're just asking the state to show that same courage."

But Brogan has been in politics long enough to know that such courage can be hard to come by — especially in an election year, amid a recession, when every vote counts and dollars are precious.

Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at scolavecchio@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Lawmakers stress need for higher ed but warn of cuts 02/26/10 [Last modified: Sunday, February 28, 2010 3:06pm]
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