Hailed as a bold stroke by supporters, Gov. Charlie Crist's plan to let state universities raise tuition by as much as 15 percent annually may also have drawn a potent foe at Thursday's unveiling, the state's first self-styled education governor, Bob Graham.
Flanked by gushing university presidents who have been howling for more cash, Crist announced the proposal as a way to improve education and help fix the ailing economy.
"You produce good jobs by having great education,'' Crist said.
But Graham and some Republican and Democratic lawmakers said on Thursday that they were concerned. For one thing, the Legislature would be agreeing to abdicate some of its power to set tuition, which members may not be willing to do.
And Graham said he worries about a bait-and-switch from the Legislature, which has a reputation for penny-pinching and tax-shifting when it comes to education, and must sign off on the proposal.
In these tough financial times, Graham said, he fears the Legislature will raise tuition on one hand and then cut its contribution toward state university spending on the other. Right now, tuition covers about 10 percent of the state university system's $8.5-billion budget, while the Legislature provides 33 percent.
"It could become almost a narcotic to cover up the real problems by shifting more of the total cost of education to students while the state does not keep up its end of the bargain,'' said Graham, who is suing the Legislature over who has the power to set tuition.
Crist's chief of staff Eric Eikenberg said Republican legislative leaders told the governor's office they plan to keep their end of the bargain and protect higher education funding.
All sides agree, however, that Florida's tuition rates must be raised to keep the state university system competitive. At $3,800 for fees and tuition for 30-credit hours for in-state students, Florida's tuition rate is among the lowest in the nation. The national average is $6,585, and Crist's plan would permit regular tuition increases until Florida's rate reaches that figure.
The proposal could raise as much as $1.5-billion over the next seven years. For an average student taking 30 credit hours over two semesters, the cost of attending a Florida public university would go up $370 next year.
"Tuition for a full year of college education in Florida is cheaper then sending a preschooler to day care. It's just too cheap," said University of North Florida president John A. Delaney. "The fundamental question always is how much skin should a student have in the game? What percentage for the cost of that education should the student pay?"
Many students appear willing to pay more of their share, said board of governor student member A.J. Meyer, who is the student body president at Florida International University in Miami.
"We understand the problem, but we also need a commitment of further support from the Legislature," so students aren't left holding the bag, Meyer said.
Crist's office has started lobbying Republican leadership in both chambers of the Legislature. Senate President Jeff Atwater and House Speaker Ray Sansom each released noncommittal statements on Thursday saying they look forward to working with the governor on the issue.
Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, said he bets the Legislature passes some version of the governor's proposal.
"A lot of the things being suggested would not be being discussed, if we weren't in a serious crisis," King said.
Meanwhile, Senate Democratic leader Al Lawson of Tallahassee blasted the idea, which, he noted, is a reversal of Crist's previous stances for the past two years.
"This move puts higher education even further out of reach," Lawson said.
Even the Senate's second in command, Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, opposes the idea despite Crist's support.
"The last thing we want to do is put more pressure on families working to get their children through universities," Fasano said.
Staff writers Adam Smith and Alex Leary contributed to this report.