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Financial picture brighter for Florida universities, but tuition hikes still on table

The University of Florida could receive as much as $30 million as part of a proposal that would grant it special status as one of the state’s top-ranked institutions.

MAURICE RIVENBARK | Times (2012)

The University of Florida could receive as much as $30 million as part of a proposal that would grant it special status as one of the state’s top-ranked institutions.

TALLAHASSEE — After years of budget cuts, Florida's universities appear to be getting everything they're asking for this year from the Florida Legislature — and in some cases, even more.

House and Senate leaders say they plan to boost university funding by more than $100 million this year, in addition to restoring a $300 million cut from university budgets last year. Some of the money will be tied to university performance.

The University of Florida and Florida State University would receive even more money, as much as $30 million, as part of a proposal to grant them special status as the state's top-ranked institutions.

House leaders are even considering a 6 percent tuition increase that would add $37 million to the schools' coffers.

"We're having a very good legislative session," university system chancellor Frank Brogan said this week.

Brogan and other university officials are careful to note that the budget process has just begun. The House and Senate still need to reach an agreement and Gov. Rick Scott must go along.

But the mood is far different than a year ago, when universities felt blind-sided by state budget cuts and were powerless to prevent them.

A tuition increase remains unlikely. Scott has said he opposes raising tuition and could veto a tuition increase if the Legislature passes one.

"This is a tax," Scott said. "It's a tax on students; it's a tax on families. So we can't be raising the cost to get higher education in this state."

Florida president Bernie Machen said he expects the schools to stay out of that fight.

"The universities are so pleased with the amount of resources that are on the table, it's a matter between the governor and the Legislature to decide if tuition is or if it is not part of the mix," Machen said.

In another turn from last year, the new Florida Polytechnic University might be the one school to have cause to worry.

While House budget writers blocked off $27 million for the new university, the Senate's budget plan includes only $11 million.

The university, which controversially split from the University of South Florida in 2012, had been expecting $27 million.

"We're looking forward to working with both sides to ensure that both sides match and that we are again fully appropriated at the $27 million reoccurring amount," said interim university leader Ava Parker. "We believe that we can demonstrate that we need that budget amount in order to adequately build the vision and implement the university."

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, continues to suggest that Polytechnic may be better off as a branch of another school instead of the state's 12th public university. So far he has only floated the idea, but language to strip away the school's independence could be written into the state budget.

Parker and board of trustees chairman Robert Gidel said the school is working toward independence, but funding is a concern.

Polytechnic is planned to open in fall 2014 with 500 students.

The state's Board of Governors, which oversees the university system and met this week in Tallahassee, wondered how Polytechnic leaders will pay to create a campus and recruit students before earning accreditation.

"As we look down the road a little bit, I'm seeing a little struggling here," Norman Tripp, a member of the board, said during Thursday's meeting.

For the second year, House and Senate leaders want to provide additional money to Florida and Florida State to help improve their national standing.

Scott vetoed a bill last year that granted the two schools the ability to raise tuition beyond the state's other universities. This year, lawmakers are replacing tuition increases with state dollars.

The Senate's budget plan includes $15 million for each school. The House would provide Florida State $12.5 million and Florida $30 million, half of which would be to increase the number of online courses, another Weatherford priority.

Weatherford also believes state universities should raise tuition in 2013, though not as much as in previous years.

Schools have increased tuition up to 15 percent in recent years to offset state funding cuts. Even with state support improving, a modest tuition hike is warranted, Weatherford said.

Florida State president Eric Barron agreed.

"I think the key here is we've gone through so many cuts over so many years that it's starting to do real damage to the institutions," he said. "And so what becomes important is additional revenue."

Tia Mitchell can be reached at tmitchell@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Financial picture brighter for Florida universities, but tuition hikes still on table 03/28/13 [Last modified: Thursday, March 28, 2013 11:37pm]
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