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In last-minute deal, House eases costs in USF Poly split


Legislative leaders struck a budget deal Monday marked by the creation of a new state polytechnic university in Lakeland, fulfilling the vision of a single lawmaker who wanted the school to grow independently from the University of South Florida.

The creation of Florida Polytechnic University, a priority of departing Sen. JD Alexander, ensures that lawmakers will be able to pass a budget before the 2012 session is scheduled to end Friday.

Negotiations tipped when lawmakers agreed to cover most of the costs associated with splitting the Lakeland campus from USF.

"It's very, very, very good. I'm very pleased," USF president Judy Genshaft said. "I want to thank everyone in the community. It truly made a difference showing the strength of the University of South Florida."

Resolving the USF controversy was a linchpin in budget talks. Lawmakers put the final touches on a nearly $70 billion spending plan Monday afternoon with dozens of community projects in members' districts, including $5 million for a regatta sports center in Sarasota, $1.6 million more for historically black colleges, $1 million for a Brevard County Achievement Center, $500,000 for a democracy conference at Florida International University and $500,000 for a service program at St. Petersburg College.

Some projects surfaced for the first time, never having been discussed in a public meeting. The projects, subject to a veto by Gov. Rick Scott, were funded though state workers will not receive a pay raise for the sixth straight year.

Senators also insisted on a provision requiring them to pay more for health insurance, rates equal to those paid by low-paid rank-and-file state workers. The higher health care costs apply only to the Senate, not the House, and will cost the 40 senators a total of $47,000. The same proposal was rejected last week by a Senate committee.

"We believe we should pay the same amount for health insurance as the people who work here," said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

The two chambers also found consensus on a $13 billion budget for preK-12 education. The spending plan funds an extra hour of reading instruction and other supplemental academic services at the 100 lowest-performing schools. It also boosts the award money given to schools that earn an A or increase their letter grade.

The USF deal defuses a standoff that began when Alexander, the Senate's powerful budget chairman, proposed steep budget cuts to USF in his push to peel away the USF Polytechnic campus in Lakeland. Last month, Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa, cushioned the blow by diverting $10 million to help USF absorb Polytechnic's faculty and staff, who would shift to USF. Norman also won an additional $3 million to cover USF's pharmacy program.

USF officials said the cuts were still too deep. A total of $16 million was needed to absorb USF Poly, they said. And its fledgling pharmacy program needed the full $6 million restored or it would "decimate everything we've been able to accomplish," pharmacy dean Kevin Sneed said.

In the end, Alexander — in his 14th and final year as a lawmaker — traded the cuts for an independent Lakeland university.

Incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, helped broker a deal that kept the pharmacy program's funding intact and strengthened language to make sure USF secured funding for current Lakeland students who earn their degrees from USF.

"The House held firm on that $6 million," Weatherford said. "It was hard, and we had to scramble, but we recognized without the total $6 million, the school's program was in jeopardy."

In addition, Weatherford was able to win an additional $6.9 million to create a cardiovascular institute at USF in partnership with the Pepin Heart and Vascular Institute at University Community Hospital. While it was also a top priority of USF's board of trustees, the state's Board of Governors had not recommended that it get financed this year.

Intertwined with the USF funding deal is an agreement to spread out $300 million in proposed budget cuts among the state's 11 universities.

House and Senate leaders agreed to divide the cuts by factoring in the size of a school's reserve fund and its ability to increase tuition rates, along with a normal state funding formula. The Senate had relied more heavily on reserve balances in crafting its budget. The House used the normal funding formula.

The hybrid method led to Florida State University getting the largest cut of $65.8 million. USF Tampa would still receive a $36.9 million cut while USF St. Petersburg would see a cut of $5.1 million.

"This was the very best approach," said Frank Brogan, chancellor of the State University System of Florida.

Times/Herald staff writers Kathleen McGrory and Tia Mitchell contributed to this report.