Only in Tallahassee would it be considered a victory to cut $300 million from higher education and still establish a new university with no students, no faculty and no accreditation. Yet Florida legislators are congratulating themselves on spreading the financial pain while meeting Senate Budget Committee Chairman JD Alexander's demand to create Florida Polytechnical University. That is not good enough for a state with bigger aspirations than the personal agendas of its lawmakers.
More enlightened legislators would demand better when the $70 billion state budget comes up for a vote today, the final day of the annual session. They would speak for higher education policy driven by statewide goals rather than political muscle. They would reject Alexander's insistence on a new university that will help justify a new toll road that will create suburban sprawl that could one day lead to his ranch and make him even wealthier.
Alexander is a skilled legislative poker player, and the Lake Wales Republican played his hand well. He did not immediately attack the University of South Florida for its reluctance to part with its Lakeland campus. He did not make overt threats when the Board of Governors, which oversees the university system, grudgingly bowed to his wishes but established a more methodical path for USF Polytechnic to become independent. Alexander bided his time and then wielded the state budget as a sharp knife to punish USF financially and slice off the branch campus to create his university. Alexander's initial budget proposal held $25 million for USF hostage, eliminated $6 million for its new pharmacy college, forced USF to absorb the costs of the branch campus' faculty and staff, and generally beat the university into submission.
The game played out predictably. The Tampa Bay community reacted with outrage. Lawmakers such as Sen. Jim Norman of Tampa and incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel demanded fair treatment for USF. Alexander gradually gave ground, and the budget that will be voted on today restores his punitive cuts and treats USF equitably in the $300 million in cuts. In return, he would get his new university on July 1. Tampa Bay legislators declared victory, and USF president Judy Genshaft is satisfied that USF's main campus in Tampa is only cut by $36.9 million. Alexander won his precious Florida Poly and plans for a nearby toll road.
This is no cause for celebration. The Board of Governors has been undermined by another legislative power play. USF will have to take care of its Lakeland students, and it likely will be several years before the new university will be accredited. One state senator's obsession will cost taxpayers untold millions that would be better spent on more thoughtful higher education initiatives.
Legislators who care about Florida's future should rise up today against this personal assault on the state budget process, education policy and fiscal responsibility. They could even vote for the main budget bill and against the companion bill that immediately creates the new university. Alexander is leaving the Legislature due to term limits, and there is nothing for lawmakers to fear but this fall's judgment of voters.