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Senate fires latest shot in college tuition battle

TALLAHASSEE — With scant debate, the Florida Senate on Thursday agreed to ask voters to overhaul public education governance for the third time in 10 years. The measure would reinstate an elected education commissioner and curtail the board that oversees universities.

A priority of Senate President Ken Pruitt, the initiative comes as the Board of Governors sues the Legislature over the authority to set tuition for the 11 state universities.

Whether the measure will actually make the November ballot is now up to the House, where Speaker Marco Rubio has neither fully endorsed nor clearly opposed the idea. Nor has he scheduled it for debate. In a tough budget year and with property taxes still a hot issue, Rubio could use the proposal as a political bargaining chip.

The proposal took a fast track through two Senate committees and passed the chamber Thursday by a 32-4 vote.

The opponents on Thursday included two from the Tampa Bay area: Democratic Sens. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa and Charlie Justice of St. Petersburg.

"This (amendment) sets it up for the Legislature to make it easier to create new medical schools and law schools where we don't need them," said Justice, an academic adviser at the University of South Florida. "This puts more politics into it."

The amendment would reinstate an elected Cabinet-level education commissioner for the first time since a Cabinet overhaul in 1998. The Cabinet and governor would serve as the State Board of Education over K-20 education, instead of the current appointed state board.

The Board of Governors, a 14-member appointed body created in 2002 to oversee the 11 institutions, would shrink to six members with their terms cut from seven years to four.

Most significantly, the measure would give the Legislature power to revise the governors' authority by passing new laws.

"This body has set tuition ever since the board was created, and guess what?" said Sen. Lisa Carlton, who sponsored the bill (SR 2308). "We'll set it again in '08" as part of the state's budget-setting duties.

The board argues it has the constitutional right to set in-state undergraduate tuition. This past summer the governors joined former Gov. Bob Graham's lawsuit challenging the Legislature's tuition authority.

Senate fires latest shot in college tuition battle 03/27/08 [Last modified: Friday, March 28, 2008 1:23pm]
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