TALLAHASSEE — In final budget talks, Florida lawmakers largely backed off from major cuts to Florida universities and colleges but remained insistent on slashing two long-standing college financial aid programs for the upcoming fiscal year.
House and Senate budget leaders agreed to suspend a $600 stipend that top-level Bright Futures recipients get each year to offset the cost of textbooks, a move that will save $37 million. Lawmakers have also signed off on a $5 million cut that will eliminate the Access to Better Learning and Education (ABLE) grant program, which helps Floridians pay for private college tuition.
State lawmakers contend the cuts to the financial aid programs were needed in a tough budget year in which they had to look at eliminating permanent expenses moving forward.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said the Access to Better Learning program had to go because the state could not justify giving taxpayers-funded aid to for-profit schools, and that the textbook stipend was part of the “recurring expense” dilemma budget writers have been facing.
But the higher-education budget includes some recurring expenses, and an early-session $2.7 billion budget gap has been more than filled with $10 billion in one-time federal money and an expected $2 billion in increased revenue forecasts.
The overall spending plan, for example, includes $25 million for a “buy one, get one free” tuition and fee waiver for upper-level courses in programs that are aligned to the state’s workforce needs, something Republican leaders have tried to put more of an emphasis on in recent years.
The “BOGO” waiver is a new proposal and is tucked in a wide-ranging higher-education measure being negotiated in the Legislature that would also shield universities from COVID-19-related lawsuits.
The Senate also met the House on $75 million for the New Worlds Reading Initiative, a proposed book distribution program that would provide literacy support to elementary school students. The budget item is tied to legislation prioritized by House Speaker Chris Sprowls.
If signed into law, the initiative would be administered by a state university, which is why spending for an elementary school reading initiative is lodged in the higher-education budget. The Senate has also offered an additional $125 million from the $10.23 billion pot of one-time federal money the state expects to receive from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act.
Renovating with federal cash
University and college construction projects also remain in play as lawmakers figure out how to spend the federal relief aid.
The Senate and House on Friday were aligned on spending $263.7 million in higher-education construction projects, but the Senate scaled back its offer to $190.9 million on Monday.
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Included in the Senate offer: $7.1 million to renovate and remodel Florida International University’s College of Arts, Sciences & Education building; $1.6 million to remodel and construct new labs and classrooms at Miami-Dade College, and $384,026 for a building renovation project at the College of The Florida Keys.
Bright Futures award amounts unchanged
House and Senate budget leaders avoided operational budget cuts to the state universities and colleges, and lawmakers maintained a commitment that Bright Futures scholarships cover 75 percent or 100 percent of students’ tuition and fees.
Groups of students and Democrats became concerned about Bright Futures funding after the Senate began pushing legislation that could have put those award amounts in jeopardy.
The proposal, pushed by Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, initially sought to reduce scholarship amounts based on specific majors that did not lead “directly to employment” or based on how many college credit students earned through Advanced Placement classes and test results in high schools. The measure was significantly watered down but said lawmakers could set scholarship amounts through the budget process, rather than keeping them tied to the cost of tuition and fees.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jay Trumbull said on Monday that the budget item was final, and that the state would continue to cover 75 percent or all of a students’ tuition costs, based on merit and high academic achievements.
“No changes,” he said.
Other budget issues
In budget negotiations, the Senate also reversed course on an $83.9 million cut that would have impacted universities and colleges based on the courses that are not tied to programs aligned to the state’s workforce needs, which is now being re-introduced in a “BOGO” tuition and fee waiver.
The House and Senate have also settled on an $18.5 million budget reduction that will lower the state’s contribution toward salaries of college and university administrators and faculty members who make more than $200,000 a year.
Universities and colleges are currently barred from using state funds to compensate administrators who earn more than $200,000. But the new budget language would expand that to faculty members, too.
“That doesn’t mean that a university can’t pay faculty members more, that just means they can’t use straight general revenue dollars in excess of $200,000 to pay their professors,” Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando, the House’s top higher-education budget negotiator explained last week.
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