Eduardo J. Padrón
Office of the President
300 N.E. Second Avenue
Miami, Florida 33132-2297
Message From the President
Friday, April 17, 2009
Funding for higher education in peril
The enclosed article from today's Miami Herald reports on the budget debate in Tallahassee, and spells out the severe challenges we face. Please take a moment to read the article below.
Posted on Fri, Apr. 17, 2009
Higher-ed funds caught in crossfire
BY SHANNON COLAVECCHIO AND MARC CAPUTO
Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau
State lawmakers began the legislative session pledging their commitment to Florida's higher education system, calling it the source of the ''intellectual capital'' needed to strengthen the ailing economy.
But as the House and Senate debated their proposed budgets Thursday, it became clear that the cooperative spirit on community colleges and universities has vanished.
Higher education spending is now a central sticking point between the two chambers: The House proposes spending $460 million less than the Senate -- making education spending the biggest gap between the two chambers, which are also deeply divided over which taxes and fees to raise.
'In the end, someone's got to ask the question of, `Where's the support for higher education?' '' said University of Florida president Bernie Machen. ``We believe we are going to see a significant base cut.''
UF would lose $50 million from its base budget under the Senate plan and $108 million under the House plan.
To that end, Machen on Thursday released a ''worst-case scenario'' plan for layoffs, program cuts and benefits changes that would save the university $108 million.
It would mean nearly 400 faculty and staff layoffs, shorter summer work weeks, the end of benefits such as sick leave and vacation time, and the elimination of programs including educational psychology, religion and geological sciences.
Earlier this week, Florida State University President T.K. Wetherell released a similar plan for $73 million in cuts that would close 21 degree programs and even the Panama City campus.
Hanging in the balance: the fate of hundreds of education employees and the entire budget. Any budget disagreement that can't be resolved by House and Senate leaders could scuttle the entire spending plan.
That could send the Legislature into overtime, lead to contentious special lawmaking sessions or ultimately interrupt programs for thousands of Floridians who depend on government spending.
The differences between the two chambers were on display Thursday as the Senate took up its $65.6 billion budget, debated it and rolled out with a unanimous 39-0 vote. While in the House, agonizing and partisan warfare ruled the day.
And differences aren't just a matter of style. The dollar differences between the budget plans themselves are rather large.
Overall, the Senate spends nearly $547 million more than the House, which proposes spending a total of $65.1 billion next budget year beginning July 1.
The House takes nearly $1 billion from special accounts called ''trust funds,'' with major raids on funds that help build roads and keep groundwater clean. The Senate takes only about $63 million from trust funds.
The House raises more than $1 billion in fees. The Senate: $636 million.
Compared to the House, the Senate takes more gambling money and is pushing for a cigarette tax that could raise about $900 million. The House, at least for now, has no cigarette tax.
After voting out the budget, the Senate then approved a Seminole Tribe gambling deal and a tobacco tax that exempted some sales of cigars, currently untaxed.
Legislative leaders hope to reach accord on the budget by April 26, for a vote as early as April 29.
Senate President Jeff Atwater met with university leaders earlier this week and reiterated his belief that the strength of Florida's economy hinges on investments in universities.
But university leaders say the real indicator of lawmakers' commitment will be reflected in the budget lawmakers pass this session.
''Cutting universities is not a good economic recovery strategy for the state of Florida,'' said Stephen Sauls, lobbyist for Florida International University.
Both budgets do allot the same amount for an FIU medical school: $20.4 million.
The Senate proposes spending $3.5 billion for state universities, $297 million more than the House. The Senate's community college budget is also $162 million more than the House's proposal of $910 million.
''This is a budget conference issue, and hopefully we find a middle point,'' said Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. "The good news is, we can only go up from here.''
Already, institutions have made cuts -- some painful. Enrollment has largely been frozen statewide. Centers and institutions have been merged or shut down. Some employees were laid off. Universities cut library hours. FIU went to a four-day work week last summer to save utility costs.
FIU would lose another $43 million under the House proposal and more than $16-million under the Senate plan. USF would lose $38 million under the Senate plan and under the House plan, $78 million -- a few million more than the annual budget of USF's liberal arts college. That's on top of the $52-million in cuts USF sustained over the past year.
Presidents are reluctant to include federal stimulus money in their budget plans for the next two years, because they can't fund degree programs and tenured professor salaries on money that runs out in two years.
''It's a lifesaver, but only in the short run,'' said Machen. ``I can't build my budget on that. It's one-time money.''
Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org