Branding them bullies and ideologues, Miami Dade College President Eduardo Padrón blasted a handful of powerful local lawmakers on Tuesday, charging that they are sabotaging his schools best hope for a desperately needed infusion of money.
Padróns unusually blunt remarks, made to the Miami Herald editorial board, came as a bill circulates in Tallahassee that would allow a Miami-Dade voter referendum on a proposed half-penny sales tax to benefit MDC. The college projects the five-year-long hike, if approved by voters, would raise about $1 billion.
This same half-penny bill has been proposed three times before, with anti-tax lawmakers repeatedly refusing to allow the question to go on the ballot. Past polling suggests the measure has a strong chance of passing, should it ever reach county voters.
This year, Padrón said it is a group of conservative Miami-Dade House Republicans who are trying to kill the measure going beyond simply voting against it to organize broader opposition, a campaign he said had crossed the line.
They want to show their force, Padrón said. Its who has more power, and who can show more power.
Padrón identified the measures four key foes as state Reps. Jose Oliva, Carlos Trujillo, Michael Bileca and Frank Artiles.
Two of the lawmakers reached on Tuesday, Oliva and Trujillo, quickly fired back, calling Padróns attack uninformed and unfair.
Oliva, in line to take over the influential House Speakers post in four years, said he is opposed to increasing taxes on a community that is still recovering from a bad economy. He called it unfortunate that Padrón had turned to personal attacks.
Is this the kind of reactionary response we can expect when we disagree with leaders in our community?" said Oliva, who represents Miami Lakes.
But a clearly frustrated Padrón called it a tragedy that hometown legislators are the ones he believes are working hardest against an important and widely supported community institution. At 175,000 students, Miami Dade is the nations largest community college and one of the most respected.
Padrón said that elite status nationally isnt reflected in the condition of MDC campuses, where years of budget cuts have led to the postponement of needed repairs. At the downtown Wolfson campus, Padrón said the elevator breaks down every other day.
The pool at the colleges Kendall campus, he added, is in such bad shape that the county sanitation department recently ordered it closed. Padrón said the closure left him feeling embarrassed.
Of the roughly $1 billion that MDC would raise from a sales-tax increase, most would go to construction needs a combination of renovations and also some new classroom and laboratory space. Nearly $100 million would be spent to improve MDCs online class offerings, and about $200 million would be devoted to financial aid and scholarships.
Padrón singled out Oliva, scheduled to become House speaker in 2018, as perhaps the biggest obstacle. That future title gives Oliva more influence, Padrón said, meaning that some Central and North Florida lawmakers may vote against MDC just to curry favor.
The MDC president even questioned whether Oliva, who dropped out of St. Thomas University, actually valued the institution of college. Oliva is CEO of his familys long-established cigar business, and Padrón said the lawmaker was born into money and has never had to earn a living.
Oliva insisted thats not true.
I was born poor in Hialeah, he said. I started my own company at 22. I made my own way in life.
Artiles, for one, denied trying to squash MDCs bill, and he said Padrón was lashing out and acting like a child.
Trujillo said Padróns remarks were unbecoming of a person in his position.
If that's what he is going to resort to, then the success or lack of success [of the bill] is in his own hands, he said.
The House version of the bill (HB 113) won the support of its three required committees before the legislative session began last month.
But since then, the proposal has not been scheduled for a hearing on the floor, suggesting House leaders have lingering concerns.
The Senate version (SB 66) by Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, is also ready for a hearing on the floor. The version in the upper chamber received only two "no" votes in its four committee hearings.
Miami Dade College wouldn't be the only beneficiary.
Ten percent of the revenue generated would be earmarked for the operation, maintenance, land acquisition and administration of Florida International University.
An independent board would provide oversight.
Padrón said some aspects of the bill such as sharing money with FIU were added in hopes of attracting support from Oliva and the other three opposed lawmakers. The groups continued opposition suggests they may have hidden agendas, Padrón said.
All four lawmakers have received campaign contributions from the for-profit college industry, which competes with MDC for students. Trujillo has performed legal work for one for-profit school Dade Medical College and his sister-in-law attended school there without paying tuition. Oliva sponsored Dade Medical owner Ernesto Perez for membership in the Governors Club an exclusive, members-only Tallahassee restaurant.
Both Trujillo and Oliva insisted their fight against the MDC bill has nothing to do with for-profit colleges. Dade Medical College co-CEO Jonathan Janeiro, in an e-mail, said his school is not involved in any way with the bill and has done nothing to lobby against it.
In recent years, MDCs budget woes likely helped fuel growth at for-profit colleges. Steep drops in state funding forced MDC to shed hundreds of employees, while eliminating some academic programs. Thousands of students couldnt register for the classes they needed because MDC couldnt afford to offer enough class sections to meet demand.
As MDC struggled, for-profit colleges surged. Between 2007-08 and 2011-12, enrollment in Florida for-profits grew by 13.2% per year on average, compared to 9.8% nationally, according to The Institute for College Access & Success.