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Propositions threaten higher education

Don't think it can't happen here.

In California, the birthplace of the anti-tax movement, tuition at the University of California has risen from $720 a year to $4,000 since passage of Proposition 13 in 1978.

In the state's university and community colleges systems, 200,000 fewer places exist for students today; 200,000 fewer students each year have the opportunity to fulfill the American dream of going to college.

At the 20 Cal State colleges, 6,000 fewer courses are being offered this year than in 1990.

In Oregon, passage of a Proposition 13-like voter initiative in 1990 has led to four straight years of higher education budget cuts. The result: Tuition has increased 66 percent, enrollment has plunged and dozens of academic majors have been eliminated.

On Nov. 8, Florida voters face a decision that could determine whether the same fate lies in our state's future. Propositions 2 and 4 on the ballot would change the State Constitution. One purportedly would limit state revenues _ and, therefore, taxes and spending. The other would allow future constitutional amendments on taxes to cover multiple subjects _ and, therefore, to make it impossible for voters to understand what they're voting on.

On the surface, these propositions hold some appeal. They are a response to the widespread disaffection with the political system. They hold out the promise of "putting government on a diet," of stopping wasteful spending.

But Floridians should be careful. As a California commentator says: "By going too far to make their life comfortable today, people all over the country may well be selling out their tomorrow."

Let's examine for a moment the notion of forcing state government to diet. Let's ask the question: "Who is already eating less?"

In the last 10 years, when Florida's population increased 25 percent, state general revenue has increased 59 percent in constant 1984 dollars. Where have those additional revenues gone?

Corrections spending is up 209 percent. For the first time in Florida history, we spend more on prisons than we do on universities.

Social services spending, more than half of which is for Medicaid, is up 146 percent.

Spending for Florida's 28 community colleges is up 5.4 percent, at a time when enrollment has increased by tens of thousands.

State spending for the state university system is up 14.6 percent. Enrollment is up 40.4 percent.

Clearly, Floridians are paying somewhat more in state taxes now than 10 years ago. But it is just as clear that prison and health care spending, and not investments in higher education, are responsible for the increase.

(The story may be about the same in next year's budget. Of new revenues from economic growth, prisons and juvenile justice are expected to receive $300-million, Medicaid $258-million and K-12 enrollment growth $166-million.)

In fact, Floridians' tax burden is relatively light. We're 41st in the nation in state tax revenue raised per capita and 49th in state government expenditures per capita. Of our total federal, state and local taxes, the state of Florida receives only about 20 percent. And local taxes _ not state taxes _ are growing the fastest, increasing sevenfold since 1977, according to Florida TaxWatch.

Florida is not a poor state. Our per capita personal income ranks us 20th in the nation. We can afford to make investments in higher education.

But we invest little. We rank 46th in university spending per capita. We're last in the South in state support of higher education per capita. Our average faculty salaries rank 42nd in the nation; a decade ago, when the state made a commitment to strengthen higher education, our average salaries ranked 13th.

The Florida Board of Regents has voted to oppose Propositions 2 and 4 on Nov. 8. We do so because we fear for the future of higher education in this state if these superficially attractive but ill-conceived amendments become part of the Florida Constitution.

In the next 10 years, more than 1.1-million students will graduate from Florida high schools. The majority will look for a place in the state's public community colleges and universities. Many of their parents will have entered into prepaid tuition contracts.

I do not wish to be an alarmist. But this truth must be told:

With these or similar tax propositions, there will not be places available in Florida's public colleges and universities for many hundreds of thousands of students in middle school and high school today.

The Board of Regents believes there are many reasons to oppose Propositions 2 and 4:

First, if spending discipline is needed, the governor and legislature should provide it _ not the Constitution.

Second, state revenue limits will only push required spending to the local level, increasing property taxes.

Third, Proposition 2 is drawn so imprecisely that interpreting it will be a growth industry in the 1995 legislative session and in years to come.

Fourth, these proposals are the outgrowth of special interests attempting to buy their own customized amendments to the Constitution. "The process has turned into a gigantic industry," one Florida newspaper reporter recently wrote, "a high-pressure, direct-marketing operation in which laws are hawked like designer knockoffs." In California, special interests spent more than $150-million on campaigns for their constitutional amendments in 1988. Can Florida be far behind?

But our main objection is that these propositions lead to the rationing of higher education. Florida will turn away hundreds of thousands of students who could succeed in college, either because there is no room for them or because tuition has made enrollment unaffordable. We will be telling business and industry that we value our status as a low-tax state more than we value providing our children with the education required for jobs of the 21st century.

Our universities and community colleges may somehow limp along with reduced funding. We'll do it by educating fewer students and, therefore, making less impact on building the kind of Florida we want for our children and grandchildren. And we'll watch as Florida's rankings among the 50 states _ in measures such as educational attainment and baccalaureate degree production _ move toward the bottom.

Perhaps then we'll adopt as our own the slogan some of the poorer southern states considered their unofficial motto in years past:

"Thank God for Mississippi! At least we're not 50th!"

Charles Reed is chancellor of the state university system.

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