TALLAHASSEE — The fight over whether to merge several Florida universities saw another twist on Tuesday, as the bill was amended to require that New College and Florida Polytechnic University be absorbed into the University of Florida.
In the previous version of the bill, Florida State University would have been mandated to merge with New College. Also gone from this version were major changes to the state’s grant to students attending private universities.
After more than an hour of testy but rushed debate — the House Appropriations committee blew past its scheduled 6 p.m. end time — the committee voted nearly on party lines to advance the bill.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, argues that the state’s funding is not being used efficiently at New College and Florida Polytechnic University because their average cost-per-degree and administrative overhead is much higher than the state average, and that by merging the institutions the state can save money.
“Running this bill brings me no joy, it makes me look like a heartless guy," Fine said during a long and impassioned speech. “(But) spending is not caring, spending more efficiently is. Because it allows us to take those dollars and spend them on all the other things that everyone in this room believes is more important.”
The idea is not popular among the presidents of Florida Polytechnic or New College, who said they were not notified of the bill’s existence before reading news stories about it. Even some other powerful Republican lawmakers who represent the districts where those colleges are located have said they’re opposed.
However, it appears the idea is being kept alive because of Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who said the this was an important debate to be had to ensure the survival of New College in spite of “financial decisions” that caused him “concern.”
“I’ve always been a good protector of New College, I think it adds value to our community, but I’m not going to be around forever, obviously, and if there are systemic problems with university and rather discuss them now figure them out,” he said recently.
Gov. Ron DeSantis also said he was open to the idea, though he said it would make more sense for the colleges to be merged with the University of South Florida because of location (something USF opposes). New College is located in Sarasota and Florida Polytechnic is located in Lakeland.
“We have a lot of good things going on with the universities, but we can’t necessarily be all things to all people so if there’s a way to do it that’s more efficient, I’m certainly willing to look at it,” DeSantis told reporters last week.
An undertone of the debate has been the original creation of both universities, which at one point, have both been part of the University of South Florida. Florida Polytechnic was created in 2012 at the insistence of powerful lawmaker JD Alexander, who some of his fellow lawmakers accused of creating a boondoggle to drive more traffic to a toll road that went through his property.
“They were political decisions driven by very powerful legislators at the time,” Fine said on Tuesday. “When we do things largely driven by politics they generally turn out to be mistakes.”
Democrats pointed out that Fine did not have a cost analysis that showed how much could be saved by the merger, and said they felt the idea was haphazard and rushed. Statistics on the colleges’ graduation rates, number of Fulbright Scholars, rankings and retention were weaponized by both sides.
But Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, pointed out one number he said was a crucial indicator of the bill’s looming demise.
“You can make numbers dance and say whatever you like,” Jenne said. “The most important number is the number of Senate (bill) companions: zero.”