TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Legislature passed a bill Friday that would increase the scholarship award amount for some Bright Futures recipients, stiffen consequences for researchers who share information with the Chinese government and create new political research institutes.
Senate Bill 72 will boost the percentage of tuition covered by the second-tier "Medallion" award, as part of Florida's merit-based Bright Futures program. Under current law, it over 75% of tuition, but this bill would allow students to receive 100% if they took their award to a state college, rather than a university.
Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, said this change is fair because tuition at universities is more expensive than colleges.
"Many students who might be better-suited at a college choose to go to a university because they get a better deal," he said. "The state wins as well because 100% of a college degree costs less than 75% of a university degree so its a win-win for everyone."
The bill would also allow universities and other research institutions to fire employees who violate conflict-of-interest policies, a reaction to the scandals at Moffit Cancer Center, the University of Florida and elsewhere where employees were suspected of secretly sharing research with the Chinese government.
The bill states that each research employees must disclose any "outside activity or financial interest" that would affect the "integrity" of the university. If they don't, the institutions would conduct an investigation lasting no longer than 60 days, during which the employee could be suspended without pay. After the investigation, depending on the results, they can be fired.
It also creates a new political research institute at Florida State University, called the "Florida Institute for Politics." The goal of the institute would be to host forums and get students interested in government. Lawmakers have said it would be nonpartisan, with the goal of allowing students with a range of political persuasions to debate.
It would also become a "national and state resource" on political polling.
A similar institute, for the "study of economic freedom" will be created at Florida International University, to study "the effect of government and free-market economies."
Also in the area of higher education, a bill that would have created a new public records exemption for the initial stages of the searches for university presidents failed to pass. Opponents said it would help attract better candidates, but it alarmed faculty unions and open government advocates who said it would make an already secretive process more opaque.