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University Plans Could Run Into Budget Crunch

Nov 25, 2016

A tight budget year could cast doubt on Senate President Joe Negron's effort to increase the funding and bolster the quality of Florida's state university system.

But Negron, a Stuart Republican who toured all 12 universities in the spring, said Tuesday that he expects lawmakers to reallocate funding in the $82 billion state budget to meet the Senate and House goals in the 2017 legislative session.

"I am confident that we can move 3 percent of an $82 billion budget around," said Negron, who previously served as a budget chairman in the House and Senate. "If not, we're not worthy of being called appropriators. We're simply rubber-stamping the work of previous legislatures."

Negron said Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, will conduct an "intensive review" of current spending as they look to redeploy money toward new priorities in the 2017-18 state budget. A 3 percent shift would represent $2.46 billion.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, said he is open to many of Negron's ideas on improving higher education, while warning the next state budget "is going to be difficult."

Although state analysts have projected a meager $7.5 million surplus, Corcoran said the financial outlook is more dire when factoring in issues such as supporting the state pension fund, where returns have been positive but not robust, and continuing to offset local property-tax hikes that support schools.

Corcoran said a more realistic projection would be a budget shortfall in the range of $500 million or greater.

House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, had a similar assessment.

"The House position is we don't have any surplus and we're not going to raise taxes," he said. "So wherever that money comes from, it will come from cutting existing programs."

Although Corcoran said House members on the education panels will shape the details of the higher-education policy, he also said "a lot of what Joe is talking about, I support."

He called a plan to expand the Bright Futures scholarship program to the summer semester a "common sense" reform.

Gov. Rick Scott also supports using Bright Futures awards for students attending summer classes at state universities and colleges. The Department of Education is advancing a budget plan calling for $34 million to pay for summer scholarships for 43,451 students.

Bright Futures is an area where lawmakers may have some room to maneuver financially because of a decline in the students qualifying for the scholarships.

The latest projections show less than 96,000 students will qualify for the scholarships in the current academic year at a cost of $203 million, while lawmakers had allocated $217 million to cover 101,000 students.

Negron has a more-ambitious and costly plan to expand the top-level "academic scholars" portion of Bright Futures to cover all tuition and fees and provide a $300 stipend for textbooks each semester.

Since the existing program covers roughly half of the tuition and fees for academic scholars, the proposal could double the cost of a program now serving 39,000 students with $102 million in funding.

A more modest but potentially significant change would expand to out-of-state students a scholarship program, named after Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, for National Merit Scholars.

The Benacquisto scholarships now provide a full ride, including tuition and housing, to 662 of the scholars from Florida at a cost of $11.6 million this year.

Benacquisto said the program expansion, while giving in-state students a priority, would allow Florida to draw top scholars from across the nation.

"If we want to have the absolute highest quality of students, those states are recruiting our kids to come there, and we should follow suit and ask their kids come to Florida," Benacquisto said.

In addition to the merit-based scholarships, Negron has also pledged to increase need-based financial aid so that students could attend any school where they are admitted "regardless of their financial circumstances."

"We witnessed on our (university) tour and in talking to students before, a lot of financial insecurity on our campuses," Negron said.

He said improving financial aid and scholarship support will enable students to avoid having to work nearly full-time jobs while trying to complete their degrees, allowing them to graduate more quickly.

Negron has set a goal of increasing state university funding by $1 billion over the two years that he will serve as president of the Senate.

In addition to scholarships and financial aid, the money would be targeted at allowing state universities to recruit top-level faculty, improve graduate education, particularly professional schools like law and medicine, and to improve aging buildings and infrastructure on the campuses, he said.

Although Negron said he wants Florida to lift state schools to the level of "national, elite, destination" universities like the University of North Carolina or the University of Michigan, he is realistic about his agenda.

"I have a vision that won't happen in the two years that I have the opportunity to serve here but we can make a very good start," Negron told the Senate.