Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Opinion

Alexander's power play is wake-up call for bay area

Give JD Alexander credit for doing something positive.

The bully of the Florida Senate has gotten everyone's attention with his attempt to starve the University of South Florida financially if its Lakeland campus does not immediately become independent. There is nothing subtle about extortion, and the Senate Budget Committee chairman's clarity of purpose has done some good.

First, Alexander has united the Tampa Bay community. It rushed to USF's defense with a swiftness and common voice rarely seen around here. From the Tampa Bay Partnership to the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, from elected officials and former mayors to civic leaders on both sides of the bay, the outrage and determination to stop these unfair budget cuts has been remarkable.

For too long, Tampa Bay's voice has been muted and its message garbled in the state capital. Orlando wouldn't put up with this mugging for a minute. It saved its commuter rail project, SunRail, because it shouted loud enough and long enough. And there's no problem hearing the message from Miami whenever the governor or the Legislature starts gouging Jackson Memorial Hospital.

Second, Alexander's punch to the gut has provided another opportunity to talk about USF's importance to this region in educating young people and driving our economy. Those not directly involved with the university can take a local institution for granted — until somebody threatens to choke the life out of it.

Don't underestimate the significance of Alexander's threat. USF says the Senate's proposed spending cuts would force layoffs and cut programs. But the ripple effect would be just as serious. USF Health CEO Stephen Klasko was returning from a meeting last week with officials from a company interested in moving to Tampa Bay because of the new College of Pharmacy when he called to discuss the proposed cuts. He is also talking to another company because of USF's new Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation.

"This is the kind of thing that makes it difficult for people who want to invest in Florida,'' Klasko said.

Alexander abandoned his bid to hold $25 million hostage as a contingency on USF Polytechnic's independence going smoothly in Lakeland. But the Senate's proposed budget still would leave USF in the red and strip all $6 million in operating money from the pharmacy college. That can't look good as the college goes through accreditation and prepares for a site visit next month.

The attack on USF could lead to something even bigger.

It's broadening the conversation in the business community about the failure of this state to invest in higher education and the lack of a coherent leadership structure. Alexander tried twice to build the pharmacy college in Lakeland, an idea that made so little sense that two different governors vetoed it. He demanded that USF Poly become independent, and the best the Board of Governors could do was slow him down and establish a road map with some benchmarks. Not satisfied, Alexander has triggered this showdown by pushing legislation to require immediate independence.

That's not a vision for higher education. That's brute force.

Legislators talk a good game about the importance of higher education in creating a healthier, more diverse economy. They just won't pay for it. The portion of universities' base budgets covered by public tax money has been declining, and the portion covered by student tuition has been rising. State support per student has dropped from 70 percent four years ago (with tuition covering the rest) to 54 percent. Other states spend much more. Yet now the House would cut the base budget by $138 million and the Senate wants to cut it by $400 million.

While the USF issue is about fairness in spreading the pain, it is really a symptom of Florida's failure to invest in higher education. The more voters and business leaders understand that and demand changes, the better.

So thanks, JD. Your obsession with your legacy already has achieved something more. You have united Tampa Bay, put the spotlight on USF's importance to the region and triggered broader interest in investing in higher education and demanding better from Tallahassee.

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