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University lobbyists caught in Florida's cross fire

You are a lobbyist, charged with bringing home state money and support for the organization that employs you. But this year, money is alarmingly sparse. And your boss' boss is suing the very lawmakers you're trying to lobby. "It's a tumultuous time," conceded University of South Florida lobbyist Kathy Betancourt.

Fraser Hale | Times, 1998

You are a lobbyist, charged with bringing home state money and support for the organization that employs you. But this year, money is alarmingly sparse. And your boss' boss is suing the very lawmakers you're trying to lobby. "It's a tumultuous time," conceded University of South Florida lobbyist Kathy Betancourt.

TALLAHASSEE — How's this for an awkward job?

You are a lobbyist, charged with bringing home state money and support for the organization that employs you. But this year, money is alarmingly sparse. And your boss' boss is suing the very lawmakers you're trying to lobby.

Such is the situation facing Florida public university lobbyists, who are trying to work in the midst of an ongoing dispute over who should control university tuition — the Legislature or the Board of Governors.

"It's a tumultuous time," conceded University of South Florida lobbyist Kathy Betancourt.

Perhaps the most stressful higher education lobbying job this year falls to Rick Maxie, the former Troy State football player who has lobbied for the Board of Governors for three years. Created by voters in 2002 to oversee the 11 state universities, the board this past summer joined a lawsuit against the Legislature over tuition-setting authority.

In the weeks following the board's historic and politically risky decision, Maxie went to lawmakers to explain the board's rationale for joining the suit. The board wants to resolve the tuition question as quickly as possible, he told them. It is not personal.

Nonetheless, some of the lawmakers were angry, and not shy in saying so.

"They were very direct," said Maxie, without naming names. "But you know, I appreciate that."

The 17-member board argues it has the right to set in-state undergraduate tuition. But the Legislature maintains it should decide tuition because its primary responsibility is setting the budget.

Moreover, legislators point out the amendment creating the board doesn't specifically list setting tuition among the board's powers.

This session, a proposed constitutional amendment that would shrink the board and settle the tuition question is on a fast track to the Senate and House floors.

Of this, Maxie is keenly aware. It is the issue that has him working 11-hour days in the office, not to mention mornings and evenings at home and even weekends. Asked his plans for Easter weekend, he replied: "Work."

"The stress is definitely higher this year," he said. "It's the first thing you think about and the last thing you think about every day. You eat lunch, and you think about it."

Maxie does not feel awkward or uncomfortable meeting with lawmakers. It is simply his job, and he does it with the same nonemotional, practical approach he took with college football.

"If I get emotional, I lose the ability to be as objective and thoughtful as I need to be," he said.

Many lawmakers take a similar approach. Reps. Joe Pickens, R-Palatka, and Bill Heller, D-St. Petersburg, say they try to focus on universities' needs rather than politics and "personalities."

Still, when a university lobbyist goes to a lawmaker seeking money or a vote on a bill, the lawsuit and the proposed amendment are the big elephants in the room. The other elephant: the state's more than $2-billion budget deficit.

The door leading to former Senate President Jim King's office this year is decorated with a poster of his head superimposed on a much trimmer body holding out empty pants pockets. "It's the lean years," the color poster declares. "We have no money so stop asking! Now what did you want to see me about?"

"It's a very tough time for university lobbyists, because their jobs are somewhat predicated on what they can do for their institutions," said Sen. King, R-Jacksonville. "And sometimes their institutions don't really sympathize with that."

Universities already lost more than $100-million this year, prompting enrollment freezes and cuts and plans for layoffs. Now, lawmakers have to cut the budget for 2008-09 by at least another $2-billion, which means tens of millions more in cuts for universities.

Former House Speaker John Thrasher, a longtime university lobbyist who now counts the University of Central Florida Foundation among his clients, said the lack of money this year exacerbates the simmering unease over university system governance.

"Everything is driven by money, particularly in higher education," Thrasher said. "And when there's no money, they go out and deal with other things they normally wouldn't, like policy."

The biggest policy shift being proposed is the constitutional amendment (SB 2308), a priority of Senate President Ken Pruitt, to reinstate an elected education commissioner over K-12 and higher education. The Board of Governors would shrink in size, and the amendment would specify that lawmakers set tuition.

The proposal comes as relations between the board and some top lawmakers grow more strained.

The chancellor recently got publicly berated before a Senate education committee, where Sen. Larcenia Bullard asked why Board of Governors members never visit with lawmakers, yet expect their support now. Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla called one of chancellor Mark Rosenberg's answers "disrespectful." And committee chairman Sen. Don Gaetz ended his questioning of Rosenberg with a terse, "You're excused."

It was a cringe-worthy exchange that left the packed room of onlookers visibly stunned.

But Maxie sat in his seat, poker-faced. He says he was strategizing.

"I was just trying to understand the intent of the style of their questions," he said. "And where it was all headed."

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

University lobbyists caught in Florida's cross fire 03/24/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 1, 2008 8:24am]
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