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With USF Polytechnic decision, we'll find out if Gov. Scott is a man of his word

Once again, Gov. Rick Scott has a chance to be the people's champion.

To be the type of governor he once promised he would be. To be the outsider, the crusader, the rare politician who would not be a puppet for cocktail party dealmakers.

Once again, he has a chance to prove principles are valued more than agendas.

And all he has to do is say no to the premature creation of a polytechnic university. Otherwise, the governor's entire persona will look like a sham.

So even if you are tired of the USF Polytechnic debate and even if you couldn't care less about building a palace for geeks in Lakeland, this decision should interest you.

Because it goes straight to the heart of what Scott promised as a campaigner and what he has actually delivered as a governor.

This was supposed to be the guy without political benefactors. And yet Scott has been wooed heavily by the prison privatization crowd, and he has pushed hard for their selfish and profit-driven legislation.

This was supposed to be the guy who wouldn't play political games. And yet Scott demanded education funding be cut by more than $1 billion a year ago, then had the audacity to talk about teachers losing jobs when presented with the budget.

This was supposed to be the guy watching public money like a hawk. And yet Scott has routinely approved frivolous and partisan legislation that has predictably led to lawsuits and wasted state funds.

Now, along comes the Polytechnic debate and a chance for Scott to finally show that Tallahassee is not the same business-as-usual place.

Because this is a perfect example of the Legislature proposing to spend tens of millions of unnecessary dollars — and that's the short-term expenditure — due to one senator's obsession to build a university in his back yard.

The state's existing 11 universities have lost $780 million in funding since 2008, and are facing $300 million worth of cuts proposed for this year.

So it's fair to say the state is running woefully short on cash for higher education.

If you want to put that in further context, think about what Scott recently wrote to the state's top education officials when asking that $250 million in building projects be tabled:

"Due to this significant shortfall it has become necessary for difficult decisions to be made on which projects may be funded and which must be discontinued at this point in time.''

And yet in this climate of historic budget cuts for universities, the governor is seriously considering the premature creation of a university?

A university with virtually no current students? A university whose accreditation will be delayed because it wants immediate independence from the University of South Florida? A polytechnic university which, by its reliance on science and math-based curriculum and labs, is among the most expensive to create?

This isn't just questionable, it is ridiculous.

Now, Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, will argue that a polytechnic university is an investment in the future because it will create the kind of high-tech job applicants the state needs. He's right. It will.

And that's why the state's Board of Governors put a plan in motion to create that university a few years down the road when there are more buildings, more teachers and more students. Also more money.

I'm not saying a polytechnic university isn't needed. It just isn't needed so far ahead of schedule and in a time of financial distress.

Just over a year ago, Scott rejected $2.4 billion in federal money for high-speed rail. He did it because he said it did not make economic sense and would have cost Florida taxpayers too much money down the road.

That decision meant the loss of thousands of potential jobs. And it meant Florida continues to lag behind much of the nation in mass transportation.

But, even if you don't agree with the decision, at least it was compatible with Scott's vision of safeguarding taxpayer dollars.

"As you know, my background is in business, not politics,'' Scott said at the time. "But you don't have to be an economics expert to understand that if you spend more money than you take in, your business will fail.

"Unfortunately, politicians haven't always seemed to grasp that same principle.''

Little has changed since then. Florida remains in economic crisis.

And if Scott approves the rushed creation of a university without any students, he will have bowed to the same political shenanigans he supposedly despised.

You can't always expect to agree with the decisions of your elected officials.

But you should at least be able to count on them to stay true to their word.

John Romano can be reached at romano@tampabay.com.

With USF Polytechnic decision, we'll find out if Gov. Scott is a man of his word 04/14/12 [Last modified: Saturday, April 14, 2012 10:20pm]

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