In the 1970s, Florida joined a wave of states that encouraged private philanthropy to public universities by matching donations. Following the housing market crash and economic downturn, the Legislature put the matching rules on hold “temporarily” in 2011.
Temporarily has turned into six years. Now, a state lawsuit has been filed against lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott to pay out the money — all $1 billion of it. That’s $600 million in backlogged matches and the rest in estimated potential donations if the automatic match is reinstated.
Grace Mead, a Miami attorney who filed the class-action lawsuit under the name of two recent University of Florida graduates, argues that the Legislature’s continued hold on donations matches violates Florida’s constitution and harms students’ education. The two students named as lead plaintiffs are Alexis Geffin, a Wisconsin sports reporter, and her brother Ryan Geffin, an incoming medical student at Florida International University.
“We’re not seeking damages,” Mead said, “we’re seeking allocation of funds.”
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UF is owed the most, at more than $155 million, said Mead, who practices in complex commercial law with the firm Stearns Weaver Miller Alhadeff & Sitterson, which is based in Miami.
Miami Dade College is due $60 million and FIU has about $42 million pending in donation matching. UF declined to comment on the suit, and the other schools did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Senate president Joe Negron, R-Stuart is reviewing the lawsuit, his spokesperson said. Other top lawmakers named in the lawsuit did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Scott’s office said they have not officially received the suit.
Four separate statutes obligate the state to match private donations. The state doesn’t have to pay out if the budget faces a shortfall, which was the case from 2008 to 2012. Facing more projected losses, legislators amended the statutes in 2011 to say the matches were “temporarily suspended” and would resume when the state could pay off the backlog — which was about $200 million at that point.
By 2017, despite a state budget that has rebounded and seen surpluses, Mead said that backlog has climbed to $600 million. And that’s not all the available funds.
This year, Florida’s Government Efficiency Task Force found that pausing the statutes froze an estimated $460 million of promised donations.
Ed Moore, president of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida, is on one of the state’s committees to analyze higher education issues. He said his committee hasn’t discussed the issue for years.
Moore said legislators have grown to dislike statutes that fund programs that don’t line up with their higher education priorities.
“It has kind of fallen out of favor,” he said. “The bad economy allowed them to kick it down the road a wee bit.”
If lawmakers want to get rid of the statutes, Mead said, they should do it in an open forum.
“They can’t do it by hiding it in an appropriations bill,” she said.