Sunday, June 17, 2018
Politics

John Thrasher's ties to Florida State go deep

TALLAHASSEE — To understand state Sen. John Thrasher's deep bond with Florida State University, start in the 1960s.

The Jacksonville native enrolled in the business school, earning his bachelor's degree. After a stint with the Army in Vietnam, he returned for a law degree in 1972.

His involvement in politics as a leader of the Republican Party provided a platform for him to give back. During an eight-year tenure in the Florida House, including two as speaker, Thrasher earmarked millions in the state budget for updating campus facilities and programs. One of his final acts as the outgoing leader in 2000 was overcoming powerful opposition to create a medical school at FSU; it's building was later named the John Thrasher College of Medicine Building.

"That was one of his babies," said former state Sen. Al Lawson, a Tallahassee Democrat who served with Thrasher. "The medical school was one that they wanted real bad, and John was very significant."

When Thrasher returned to the private sector, he started a lucrative lobbying firm that allowed him time to give back to FSU in a new way: as the first chairman of the university's Board of Trustees. There he suffered one of few defeats as he tried to establish a school of chiropractic medicine.

Thrasher returned to the Legislature in 2009 after winning a special election for a Senate seat representing St. Augustine. Soon after, he was appointed chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. He also developed a strong relationship with Gov. Rick Scott and now serves as his re-election campaign chairman.

Thrasher's education policies will get the most scrutiny as he prepares to interview for the FSU presidency.

He joined a majority of legislators in supporting a $300 million cut to state universities in 2012, the same year he also emerged as a vocal backer of fast-tracking the establishment of Florida Polytechnic University. Then-FSU president Eric Barron never hid his disdain for the slash in funding and said it had a negative long-term impact.

Thrasher said recently that the budget cuts that year were a result of tough financial times, and he had to consider his taxpayer constituents.

"We certainly didn't want to try to raise taxes; we certainly didn't want to try to raise tuition," he said. "It was a matter of us making sure the budget was balanced in a responsible way."

This year, Thrasher supported efforts to restrict universities' ability to increase tuition outside of the legislative process and tried unsuccessfully to allocate money for FSU to establish an engineering school separate from the one it shares with Florida A&M University. House Speaker Will Weatherford refused to go along with that plan.

Perhaps Thrasher's most surprising education initiative came in 2012 when he filed an ethics bill that would have prevented legislators from working for or having contracts with state colleges or universities until they have been out of office for two years.

That proposal died in committee, but if it had been signed into law no one would be discussing a potential Thrasher presidency at FSU.

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