Today is the day Tampa Bay's state senators stand up for the University of South Florida. Today is the day they speak with one voice against one powerful senator's attempt to punish USF if he doesn't get his own independent university. Today is the day they ask their colleagues to rise against the Senate leadership and treat USF fairly as the Legislature prepares to foolishly cut spending again on higher education.
The Senate takes up its proposed $70.8 billion state budget today, and now is the time to remove the poison darts inserted by Budget Committee Chairman JD Alexander that would cause USF to hemorrhage financially. The Lake Wales Republican intends to use the budget to immediately grant USF Polytech in Lakeland its independence and divert millions away from USF for playing by the rules. He is running roughshod over the Senate's established practices for writing budgets and ignoring conditions for USF Poly's independence set by the Board of Governors, which ostensibly oversees the state university system.
Six Tampa Bay senators are prepared to take up USF's cause and start repairing the damage with a series of amendments: Republicans Jim Norman of Tampa, Jack Latvala of Clearwater, Dennis Jones of Seminole, Mike Fasano of New Port Richey and Paula Dockery of Lakeland, and Democrat Arthenia Joyner of Tampa. Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, supports USF but did not sign on to the amendments before they were filed.
The $6 million to operate USF's new College of Pharmacy that was cut by Alexander would be restored by one of Norman's amendments. Alexander's previous efforts to build the pharmacy college in Lakeland were vetoed by two different governors, but it would be crippling to deny it any operating money in Tampa. The timing for this gamesmanship, with the pharmacy college going through the accreditation process, could not be worse.
Another Norman amendment would restore $16 million for faculty and staff in Lakeland who would be absorbed by USF if USF Poly becomes independent. The most challenging amendment would reduce USF's $78.9 million base cut to about $50 million, spread it across its campuses and bring it more in line with the cuts projected for other universities. That issue likely will be part of broader negotiations between the House and Senate on a final budget that should treat all universities more reasonably.
This is a battle for equity and fairness that will be waged in stages. Norman made significant progress last week by persuading Alexander to restore $25 million for USF that he was holding as a contingency to a smooth transition for independence for USF Poly. The next positive step would be to restore the most direct cuts during today's Senate debate. The trickiest part will be when the House and Senate negotiations on a final budget go underground. The House has relied upon a more equitable traditional formula to calculate higher education spending cuts; the Senate has been more arbitrary in its approach. By the time the budget is ready for a final vote by the Legislature, the damage could be done and all but impossible to correct.
The bigger issue, of course, is the hypocrisy of state legislators who promote universities as economic engines and then cut their state funding. The Senate would cut base spending on higher education by $400 million and the House would cut it by $138 million. That is awfully shortsighted, but at the very least the pain should be distributed fairly. Tampa Bay's senators today should insist the bull's-eye is no longer on USF.