As a first-time candidate for public office, Rick Scott promised voters he would be different. The former health care executive would challenge the political establishment. He would be frugal and results-oriented, and he would be beholden to no one. Now 17 months after his improbable victory, the governor has an opportunity to demonstrate he is a different breed and not just another calculating politician.
Scott can embrace the ideals he promotes by vetoing the immediate creation of a 12th university in Lakeland that would be known as Florida Polytechnic. It doesn't make business sense, and it hasn't been well vetted. It doesn't make sense for higher education, and it would harm existing universities already starving for investment. This is the pipe dream of a powerful Polk County state senator more interested in his legacy than Florida's best interests. The Legislature rolled over for JD Alexander. Only Scott can stop him now.
An unjustified expense
Scott signed off last year on $35 million for a new University of South Florida Polytech campus in Lakeland that Alexander wants to steal for a new independent university. The 2012-13 budget approved by the Legislature last month includes more than $22 million for a new school that has no students, no faculty, no buildings and no academic accreditation. That is not a prudent use of public money when the same budget slashes spending on higher education for the fifth straight year and requires cuts of another $300 million.
In addition to the $22 million for the new university, there is another $10 million for USF to keep paying its faculty and teaching its students in Lakeland. The future costs for this boondoggle will only keep growing, and USF also has pledged to continue to offer classes in Lakeland until all of its current students there have graduated or left. Florida needs to invest substantially more in higher education, but there are smarter ways to do it.
An indefensible gamble
As head of the Columbia/HCA hospital chain, Scott would not have acquired another hospital without studying the geographic market, the demand for services and the potential for return on investment. As governor, he talks constantly of measuring performance and spending public money on programs that work. Alexander's demand for a new university in Lakeland fails on all counts.
There has been no independent analysis that supports the creation of a new university, and the projections by its supporters are wildly inflated. There is no statewide consensus that building a new university is the best way to improve a system where three universities rank among the nation's largest and none rank among the top 50 academically. If there were broad support for a new school, the likelihood that it would be built in Lakeland is slim and none. Florida Polytech would be a trophy for Alexander that generations of Florida taxpayers will pay for over decades. The losers will be the University of Florida, the University of South Florida and other colleges that already are underfunded and could put those millions to better use.
Alexander met with Scott last week and emphasized the need for more science, technology, engineering and math students. The state already has existing STEM programs that could be expanded. It would take several years for Florida Polytech to receive accreditation, and that would be no easy task. The best students are not going to attend an independent, unaccredited university no matter how fancy its buildings, and the best faculty members are not going to teach there. The students and faculty at USF Polytech oppose Alexander's scheme, and so do other elected officials from Polk County. Some community leaders who initially supported it say they were pressured by Alexander and have since backed away.
An abuse of power
Scott can stand behind the methodical analyses he employed in the private sector and promotes as governor, or he can succumb to the legislative bullying that has plagued Florida for decades. The Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system, already has responded to Alexander's demands by creating a path to independence for USF Polytech that requires completion of a number of benchmarks. But Alexander is too impatient to follow the rules. He forced the sheep in the Legislature to pass a bill requiring immediate independence and to approve a budget that steers millions to the school starting in July.
Let's not forget how Alexander pulled off this bank robbery by holding USF hostage. As Senate Budget Committee chairman, he initially cut USF's budget disproportionately compared with other universities. He tied millions more for USF to the Lakeland campus' independence, and he eliminated funding for USF's college of pharmacy after trying for two years to move it to Lakeland.
The threats worked like a charm: The Tampa Bay community reacted with outrage, USF was fairly treated in the final budget cuts — and Alexander got his new university and the millions to jump-start it. Setting public policy by political force is exactly the sort of abuse Scott campaigned against.
It won't be easy for Scott to do the right thing. Alexander made sure of that. The conforming bill that creates Florida Polytech also includes the $6 million to operate USF's College of Pharmacy in Tampa and the $10 million to keep USF open in Lakeland. The $22.5 million for the new university is in the state budget. Vetoing both the conforming bill and the budget appropriation will require some creativity by the governor to find the money to operate USF's College of Pharmacy and the existing USF campus in Lakeland. But Scott cannot allow Alexander's manipulation of the process to stand in his way of a veto.
This is an extraordinary opportunity for Scott to show Floridians what it means to hold government accountable. Planning thoughtfully, spending wisely and measuring results have to be more than campaign talk.