Tampa Bay found its voice, and Tallahassee got the message. The Florida Senate on Thursday repaired most of the financial damage Sen. JD Alexander threatened to inflict upon the University of South Florida in his quest to transform USF's Lakeland campus into an independent university. The public outrage and a legislative effort led by Sen. Jim Norman of Tampa proved remarkably effective in ensuring the university will be treated more fairly as the debate continues over creating the state's 12th university.
Norman led the private discussions with Alexander and other Senate leaders that resulted in Thursday's positive changes. Alexander initially sought to take away all $6 million in operating money for USF's new College of Pharmacy, and the Senate restored $3 million. The Lake Wales Republican sought to force USF to eat $16 million in costs to absorb faculty and staff from USF Polytechnic in Lakeland, and the Senate restored $10 million. He proposed reducing USF's base state funding by more than $78 million, and the Senate reduced that cut by $33 million, making the reduction more in line with those for other universities. It's a clear victory for USF and for Tampa Bay's legislative delegation.
This unnecessary political fight united a region that too often fails to speak with one voice in Tallahassee. It highlighted USF's importance in educating students and stimulating the economy. And it educated casual voters about how powerful legislators such as Alexander wage personal crusades at the expense of sound public policy.
The immediate financial crisis for USF has passed, but Alexander's drive to immediately create a 12th university should not succeed. His threat to decimate USF's budget was only part of his broader plan to get the Legislature to grant USF Poly its immediate independence. A number of Alexander's fellow Republicans, including Sens. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey and Paula Dockery of Lakeland, stood on principle Thursday and opposed Alexander. Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, spoke in favor of this power grab even as Alexander lashed out at USF. The Board of Governors has set a series of methodical benchmarks for the Lakeland campus to meet before becoming independent, but Alexander predictably persuaded the Senate to approve a budget bill that short-circuits that process without knowing the cost. The House should not agree to it, and Gov. Rick Scott is right to be skeptical.
The political battles will continue now that the Senate and House have passed their separate state spending plans and start work on a final state budget. At least USF will be treated fairly and the focus can shift to a broader discussion about the appalling lack of support for higher education in Florida — and a politically driven, foolish plan to create a new university.