TALLAHASSEE — Senate budget writers relented slightly Wednesday and unfroze $25 million of the University of South Florida's proposed budget for next year.
It's a step in the right direction, as one lawmaker put it, and USF officials expressed gratitude, but the school is still not satisfied. The money was not among the total budget cuts USF considered unfair. Rather, it was money the Senate wanted to sequester pending USF's cooperation in splitting off its Lakeland branch campus into the state's 12th university.
USF will still be expected to sever its ties with the campus, which would become Florida Polytechnic University under the Senate's budget plan. The only difference is, they won't have an extra financial hammer being held over their heads.
JD Alexander, the senate budget chairman pushing hardest to bring Florida Polytechnic to life, said he hopes USF can carry out that mission without that financial threat.
"I think for any university to fly in the face of an entire Legislature would be a foolhardy decision," Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said.
Sen. Evelyn Lynn, chair of the higher education appropriations committee, said she changed her mind and proposed removing the $25 million contingency because "people seemed upset about it."
Upset, indeed. The decision came a day after lawmakers were flooded with calls and emails from the USF community, furious at what they saw as unfair and vindictive treatment in light of Alexander's well-known push to create the new university. Under a budget conforming bill slipped into the budget last week, the campus would split off from USF immediately, short-cutting a path already laid out by the Florida Board of Governors.
Then came cuts of $400 million in one-time funds to the state university system, which Alexander said were calculated based on the schools' reserve funds. USF, which does not have the most reserve funds, got the biggest cut, according to the university's analysis of the numbers.
At the meeting Wednesday, Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa, echoed some of the frustration coming out of USF, sharply criticizing Lynn for what he saw as a lack of collaboration with USF when coming up with the cuts in total.
"University of South Florida, they are not saying that they do not want to participate and be a fair participant in addressing these budget issues," said Norman. "But either all the smart people that have analyzed their impact and analyzed how it has been divvied up are all wrong, or this room is full of people that don't understand."
Lynn denied USF was being singled out.
"We computed it in a fair way," Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, said. "If the University of South Florida can't compute it, I suggest their finance person — who is excellent, by the way, meet with staff."
"Sen. Lynn, maybe you didn't hear what I said," Norman responded. "I said, if you would have listened, I said that these people have a misunderstanding either through these numbers or how it is impacting. I said they want to participate . . . I was not disrespecting staff. I was not disrespecting anyone. However, I think the disrespect is to USF, if you didn't sit down with them before the cuts came down."
Later in the day, after Senate leaders agreed to free up the $25 million, and after Alexander said he would meet with USF President Judy Genshaft to discuss the cuts, Norman sounded more content.
"That was one heck of a concession," Norman said after the meeting. "The bullet's not aimed at them."
Still, there's still work to be done, he said. "I don't want USF to be harmed in any way out of any ill feelings over anything else. We're going to do this right."
That was the feeling of Rep. Will Weatherford, incoming House speaker, too. Weatherford vowed earlier this week that cuts of the magnitude being pushed by the senate would not be allowed to happen. A final state budget will have to be agreed upon by both chambers, then signed by the governor.
"This is a step in the right direction," said Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.
Groups of USF students traveled to Tallahassee Wednesday, leaving Tampa at 3 a.m., to make their case before the Senate's budget committee. They talked about painful tuition hikes, their fears for siblings who might attend USF in the future and their confusion with the wisdom of creating a new university when it's necessary to make such huge cuts to the existing ones.
Matt Diaz, USF's student body president, marched up to the microphone armed with more than 100 handwritten letters from students, asking for mercy.
"I believe that there's a target on higher education, in particular on the University of South Florida, in this proposed bill," Diaz said. "What if these funds don't come back?"
If these cuts go through intact, Diaz said, he would personally lead a get-out-the-vote campaign among students to try to replace existing lawmakers with "pro-education individuals."
The senators, who until that point had listened quietly to the students, took offense at that point.
Lynn took to the microphone, chastising the students for coming now to complain about costs when she says they lobbied for tuition and fee increases in prior meetings. But it wasn't just that. Lynn also scolded the students for the way they delivered their arguments, saying they didn't do their homework.
"If you tell us that USF is disproportionately cut when the sheets are quite clear . . . and we explained earlier how we got to those numbers, then there's something wrong with this picture," Lynn said. "What you say and how you say it, this is an education in itself."