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Proposal is costly to universities

State university officials are furious at a legislative proposal to fill the latest gap in the state budget, a plan that could cost the universities up to $17-million. "We're going to raise hell," said Pat Riordan, spokesman for the state university system.

"This is morally repugnant to say the universities are going to pay /ths of education's cut," he said. The proposal would allow $17-million to be cut from the universities, but only $1-million from public schools and community colleges.

At the University of South Florida, the plan could mean a cut of $3-million for items such as student housing and financial aid, said Mark Lono, USF's vice president for public affairs.

Legislators are convening today for a special session to plug what revenue estimators now say is a $151.3-million hole in the state budget. With the portion of the budget financed by sales tax dollars already having been cut several times this year in response to the recession, lawmakers now say it's time to dip into the special trust funds in which 60 percent of the state's money is held.

The plan Wednesday afternoon was to take a year's worth of interest from all the trust funds that either weren't set up in the state Constitution, don't draw federal or local matching funds, or aren't used for debt service. Among trust funds that wouldn't be touched would be those for transportation, the lottery and state employee retirement.

The proposed trim would raise about $110-million. The rest of the cut would be raised with a 0.25 percent reduction in agency budgets, a $20-million trim of planned construction projects and by taking $8-million from the abandoned bank accounts that have been referred to the state for collection.

House Appropriations Chairman Ron Saunders said Wednesday evening that after talking with university system Chancellor Charles Reed, budget negotiators decided to give the universities a break by taking a bigger cut out of wealthier trust funds, including one that pays for reclamation of phosphate property.

But that "break" could depend on the governor, since Saunders said the plan that will be presented to legislators today would allow Gov. Lawton Chiles to trim the year's worth of interest from the trust funds if he wanted to beef up the state's emergency fund, which has been woefully depleted lately.

Even a smaller trim isn't fair to the universities, Riordan said. Just because of technicalities in where the universities' money is held, they are being penalized while the community colleges are not, he said.

"It's "just' interest," Riordan said facetiously. "All it does is pay people's salaries. It pays parking attendants, bookstore employees, cafeteria employees, student housing employees, sponsored research employees."

"The implication was that those funds were just sitting there and not being spent on anything important," USF's Lono said. "That's just not the case."

The loss of money needed to correct fire code violations in student housing could mean that the university would have to impose an extra fee on students, Lono said.

During today's six-hour session, legislators also are expected to consider a bill banning tandem trailer trucks from two-lane roads. The previous prohibition against big trucks on small roads lapsed after the Legislature failed to pass a wide-ranging transportation bill last month.

Legislators also are slated to appropriate money for the Florida State University High Magnetic Field Laboratory. Chiles vetoed the planned purchase of a building in Tallahassee for the project, saying he thought that the $14-million building would need costly renovations.

Sen. Jack Gordon, D-Miami Beach, and the %% WARNING %%American Civil Liberties Union are trying to drum up interest in overriding Chiles' veto of a bill that would expand legal rights of victims of discrimination. But prospects appear dim.

_ Staff writer James Harper contributed to this report.