Gov. Rick Scott is smart to be scrutinizing a list of construction projects for universities and community colleges included in next year's state budget. But as the governor considers how best to use his line-item veto power for the first time, he would be wise to focus more on the merit of individual projects rather than broader questions about the state's debt load. Florida should continue to invest in higher education, even in tough economic times.
Scott praised lawmakers earlier this month when they approved the budget as a reflection of his principles of less government and lower taxes. He has until June 1 to sign the bill. But he signaled last week that he won't be shy about finding additional savings through line-item vetoes. He hasn't said what he might veto, although at last week's state Cabinet meeting he asked questions about what impact a state plan to borrow $135 million to help fund $250 million in higher education capital projects would mean for the state's debt capacity and credit rating.
The answer, at this moment, is not much. State law would prohibit Florida from actually selling the bonds if there is not the money to pay for them, plus a 10 percent cushion — a structure that assures Wall Street ratings agencies that the state is borrowing soundly.
But Scott has identified a target-rich environment for extracting some additional savings. Republican legislative leaders loaded up the higher education facilities lists at the last minute with projects to benefit their own communities, including at least $56 million worth that then-Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed just a year ago because the projects hadn't been properly vetted by higher education leaders.
Most egregious is $26 million in additional dollars that Senate Budget Committee Chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, obtained for "University of South Florida Polytechnic," a largely unvetted grandiose idea to turn USF's Lakeland campus into a major four-year university campus, even though enrollment numbers there have been suspect. This potential boondoggle has always been more about creating more development opportunities for major landowners like Alexander than about legitimately expanding access to higher education.
House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, also loaded up, acquiring $6 million for a University of Florida medical research facility in Orlando, plus nearly $13 million more for the University of Central Florida. In fact, Alexander and Cannon secured the funds even as lawmakers failed to provide $32 million for a half-dozen other university projects that had been vetted and prioritized by the university system's Board of Governors. That process is the best way to ensure that taxpayers fund what the state's higher education system needs, not just what some lawmaker has enough clout to put into the budget for his district.
Scott promised when he came to Tallahassee that things would be different. Now's his chance to make good on that promise in a beneficial way. The fact is, Florida may soon have to grapple with how it will pay to maintain state college and university buildings or build new ones. The utility and telecommunication taxes that pay for the so-called Public Education Capital Outlay program have been growing far more slowly in this recession. The best place to start with reform, however, is putting a halt to building those facilities that weren't on the higher education system's priority list this year.