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Regents' appointments held hostage in Senate

More than 200,000 students are educated in Florida's public universities _ but the state system isn't only about college degrees.

It's also about power and politics, a tug-of-war between lawmakers, the governor and the Board of Regents that sets policy for Florida's 10 public universities.

Tuesday, Regents Jon Moyle and James Heekin got caught in the conflict. Legislators told them they're tired of requests for higher tuition, and want to know what the regents are doing to improve higher education.

Indeed, Sen. John Grant, R-Tampa, said the men _ both appointees of Gov. Lawton Chiles _ are likely to be used as bargaining chips as conservative lawmakers try to pressure Chiles to sign their legislation.

Republican senators grilled Moyle and Heekin, who are up for confirmation for second terms on the board of regents.

Sen. Fred Dudley, R-Cape Coral, put Moyle on the spot in the crowded meeting room Tuesday, asking him what he's done other than come to the Legislature for more money. Lawmakers approved a tuition increase for universities last session, and are considering another increase this session.

"So much of our discussion has been more money, more money and more money," Dudley complained.

Moyle explained that he has also pushed for more technology and distance learning programs.

But other senators complained that regents have been less than enthusiastic about "performance-based budgeting" that would hold universities accountable for how they educate students. Both chambers are working on establishing measures by which to judge the universities, such as how quickly students graduate.

They're also thinking about financial rewards for meeting the standards _ and maybe even punishments for failing to do so.

"We're not satisfied that the board of regents has really been anything more than an obstructionist to performance-based budgeting," said Sen. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, vented irritation over an old hurt _ a 1995 controversy over popular University of Florida President John Lombardi. Heekin wrote a letter to Lombardi chastising him for pushing statewide university proposals before discussing them with other university presidents who might be affected. Heekin said he would help find Lombardi another job if he couldn't play by the rules _ sparking protests from state officials and UF supporters.

Presidents "should be encouraged and not discouraged, lifted up, not beaten down," Latvala told Heekin Tuesday.

Despite the grilling, both men were recommended for confirmation, and next will be considered by yet another panel of senators before moving to the full Senate.

But Grant, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, predicted the full Senate won't take up the confirmations quickly, "and it's too early to tell" whether the two men will ultimately be confirmed.

"The governor wants these regents (confirmed), and we want some legislation," Grant said.

Two other regents were recommended for confirmation Tuesday without controversy _ James Harding, who represents students on the board; and Phil Lewis, a former Senate president who was treated warmly Tuesday by his former colleagues.