TALLAHASSEE — A $162 million plan to improve state funding for student financial aid opportunities and make Florida's public colleges and universities more competitive passed the state Senate on Thursday with near-unanimous support — marking early success for one of Senate President Joe Negron's top priorities.
Senate Bill 2 is the cornerstone of proposed reforms that Negron, R-Stuart, wants for the state higher education system this year. Other potential changes aimed at the state college system are more controversial and moving slowly through the Senate.
A companion measure to SB 2 still needs to be approved by the House. That package (HB 3 and HB 5) has yet to be considered, and it could now face more difficulty due to clashing priorities — and rising tensions — between Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes.
The proposed reforms in SB 2 include an array of changes to Florida's public colleges and universities, including:
• Increasing financial aid for students, including top Bright Futures scholars who would have 100 percent of their tuition covered. The bill also expands funding to include the summer term, creates a scholarship program for migrant workers and their children, expands benefits to National Merit Scholars by allowing out-of-state students to qualify, and doubles the state-to-local match for a grant program that helps first-generation college and university students.
• Requiring universities to implement "block" rates for tuition by fall 2018, rather than charging by the credit hour, a change intended to help move students through college faster;
• Changing the way the state measures a university's performance, in part by encouraging students to graduate in four years rather than six.
• Improving the way students move from state college programs to state university programs.
• Enhancing programs to recruit and retain top faculty at Florida's public universities.
"This is one of the most bold pieces of legislation in my career with regard to higher education," said Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican and the chamber's higher education budget chairman who shepherded the bill through the Senate.
SB 2 passed the Senate by a 35-1 vote. Although the bill has been one of his pet projects, Negron's "yes" vote won't count in the official record because he didn't cast it until after voting ended. That was because of "miscommunication" with the chamber secretary, his spokeswoman Katie Betta told the Times/Herald.
Restoring full funding for the Bright Futures scholarship and expanding it to the summer term would affect about 45,000 academic recipients for the 2017-18 school year. That's the predominant expense for the legislation, alone estimated at $151 million.
Full-time students would also potentially save thousands of dollars through the block-tuition policies that would be required of universities. If enacted, students starting in fall 2018 would be able to take additional courses each term without extra expense. Lawmakers hope that will be an incentive for them to complete coursework faster and graduate on time or even early.
But universities could stand to lose millions in the transition, an impact that had yet to be fully accounted for, senators said.
"Florida State University says it could cost $40 million of their bottom line," said Lake Worth Democratic Sen. Jeff Clemens, who was the only opposing vote. "The intent of the program is good, but there is a real fiscal impact."
Meanwhile, Clemens and several other Democratic senators raised concerns that the financial aid expansions in SB 2 focused too heavily on merit-based programs and not enough on programs helping those who struggle to pay for college regardless of their academic level.
On Wednesday, Democrats attempted several amendments to ease their concerns; all were rejected by the chamber's narrow Republican majority.
Negron and Galvano vowed that the Senate budget proposal — which will be released later in session — will call for more funding for need-based financial aid.
Contact Kristen M. Clark at email@example.com. Follow @ByKristenMClark.