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DeSantis Signs Higher Education Changes

Jun 19, 2019

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday signed into a law a higher-education package that changes how public universities and colleges will fund construction projects, a top priority of House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes.

The bill (SB 190) was prompted, in part, by a high-profile financial scandal at the University of Central Florida. The university was found to have misused millions of dollars in state funds for a construction project.

A state audit last year determined that UCF had improperly used $38 million in state operating funds to build a campus building, which led to the resignation of a number of university officials.

President Dale Whittaker resigned in February of this year after only six months in the job, while John Hitt stepped down from an adviser/fundraiser position he had taken after retiring as UCF President, a position he had held for 26 years.

Such funds are only allowed to be spent on activities like instruction, research, libraries, student services or maintenance.

UCF officials later identified another $13.8 million in projects that appeared to be improperly funded. The university replenished the improperly used funds with legally authorized money in all cases.

The case led the Florida Board of Governors to ask the other state universities to review similar building projects over the last decade.

As a result of that review, the University of South Florida found that it had misused $6.4 million in state dollars for a construction project. However, USF senior vice president for business and financial strategy David E. Lechner said that was due to a “misunderstanding” of how funds could be used for capital projects.

Trustees for all 12 members of the State University System have since been required to take a financial training session titled "Flavors of Money" (click here to see the presentation USF Trustees viewed at their June meeting).

The training covers the authority and fiscal responsibilities of the trustees, as well as the key statutes and regulations on the use of funds.

Other changes approved by the governor in the bill include revised student eligibility requirements for the Bright Futures scholarship program.

The revisions will make it harder for students to get the scholarships. A staff analysis said the initial year the changes affect incoming freshmen, “the Bright Futures program funding may be reduced by $40 million based on approximately 7,000 fewer total students receiving scholarships."

In six years, when the changes to the scholarship program are fully implemented, the state is expected to save $111 million annually, the analysis says.

The bill was one of 11 measures that DeSantis signed into law Tuesday from the legislative session that ended May 4.