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The meddlers

State Sen. John Grant of Tampa and some of his Republican colleagues in the Florida Senate clearly do not have enough to do. Writing an inadequate state budget, fighting every tax and dreaming of following former prison inmates by satellite is not enough. They also want to micromanage the state's university system with the same narrow-mindedness that colors their other pursuits.

Grant and his friends amused themselves the other day by toying with two members of the Board of Regents, which sets policy for Florida's 10 public universities. Jon Moyle and James Heekin, who were reappointed by Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles and are two of the better regents, must be reconfirmed by the Senate. The shabby treatment they received at a Senate committee hearing says more about the danger of power-hungry legislators than it does about the quality of the regents' efforts to improve higher education.

Obsessed with cutting corners and saving money, the Republican senators unnecessarily grilled Moyle and Heekin about the necessity of tuition increases recommended by the Board of Regents. Sen. Fred Dudley, R-Cape Coral, complained that "so much of our discussion has been more money, more money, more money." That just might be because Florida ranks 47th in the country in average undergraduate tuition for residents. The university system continues to grow by about 4,000 students a year, but legislators are earmarking less in general tax dollars for higher education than they did a decade ago, after the dollars are adjusted for inflation. To suggest that Florida spends too much money on higher education ignores reality.

Heekin also was criticized by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, for his attempt in 1995 to rein in University of Florida President John Lombardi. That power struggle, in which Lombardi fought some regents and other university presidents, has been resolved. To reopen those wounds now is counterproductive to the common goal of improving public universities.

Grant already has been criticized this year for his meddling at the University of South Florida. In another crass power play, he now wants to use the regents' confirmations as bargaining chips with Chiles on other legislation.

That is an abuse of the confirmation process, and Senate President Toni Jennings should immediately stop such maneuvering. Members of the Board of Regents should not be part of legislative deals, and they must be able to assess the needs of higher education without being rebuked by grandstanding senators.

For anyone truly interested in improving higher education, there are many issues to consider. Spending more money certainly is one viable option. Allowing penny-pinching legislators to take over the direct operation of our universities is not.

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