Miami Dade College lost its sales-tax pitch in the Legislature, and may have burned some bridges

Miami Dade College President Eduardo Padrón began this year’s legislative session with the goal of fixing the college’s outdated classrooms and decaying roofs. Those renovations — and a whole lot more — would be the prize if the college could secure lawmakers’ support of its long-desired half-penny sales-tax increase.

The session ended with the sales-tax bill dying once again in the Legislature and Padrón scrambling to repair something besides buildings: a suddenly-tattered relationship with state lawmakers.

By publicly calling out four local lawmakers as “bullies” — and also attacking the future House speaker in harshly personal terms — Padrón doomed the sales-tax bill, which had been intended to raise $1 billion for the school. He also offended those who will hold the college’s purse strings in the future.

The damage may linger for years.

“They are in real trouble,” veteran Tallahassee lobbyist Ron Book said of MDC. “If they don’t figure this out, they will suffer when they don’t even know it. You cannot disrespect the Florida House of Representatives the way Eduardo Padrón did and expect it to go away on [the last day] of the legislative session.”

Padrón’s unusually blunt comments, directed at four Miami-Dade Republican House members who he blamed for holding up the legislation, attracted national attention.

In Miami, it energized some students and staff who saw their president as a courageous fighter speaking truth to power. Padrón started receiving standing ovations at his public appearances. But in the Legislature, the president’s remarks to the Miami Herald editorial board proved a disaster, scuttling the bill he had hoped to save.

And Book believes Padrón has seriously hurt the college’s ability to pass legislation — or win extra funding — going forward.

Those lawmakers who opposed the sales-tax idea turned up the criticism in retaliation, arguing that MDC is asking for the public to pay for upgrades and expansion it doesn’t necessarily need. The MDC bill wouldn’t have automatically raised taxes — it would have simply allowed for a voter referendum on the issue.

Out of the proposed five-year, half-penny tax increase, the college says more than half of the $1 billion raised would go to repairs and renovations. Some money would also go to building new classrooms, hiring additional faculty and increasing student scholarships.

But the college also wants to spend more than $200 million on “at least” two new campuses. Possible locations are Miami Beach, Aventura or northwest Miami-Dade.

The college argues that additional, more-accessible campuses are essential in traffic-choked Miami, but that’s not an easy sell in the strongly antitax Legislature.

Also politically problematic is that Padrón singled out Miami Lakes Rep. Jose Oliva — an up-and-coming Republican set to become House speaker in 2018.

Angry that Oliva was leading the charge against the MDC bill, Padrón branded him a college “dropout” who had been born into privilege.

A day later, Padrón publicly apologized and said his comments were “offensive” and “not appropriate.”

Email records show that Padrón also requested a sit-down meeting with each of the four lawmakers he had insulted, in an attempt to mend fences.

Oliva said he took Padrón up on the offer and “had a very nice meeting with him one Saturday.” But he also said he remains strongly opposed to a sales-tax increase.

While Padrón argues that allowing the public to decide is the “democratic” thing to do, Oliva says that voters are sometimes too generous for their own good — and it is his duty to protect them.

Because of Oliva’s fast-growing influence, his opposition alone could be enough to derail the proposal in future years. And, according to the college, local Republicans Carlos Trujillo, Frank Artiles and Michael Bileca have joined with Oliva in blocking the sales-tax proposal — a claim they deny, though they clearly do oppose the bill.

In other words, voters shouldn’t expect it to be on their ballot anytime soon.

In an interview last week, Oliva contended that MDC has more money than it lets on. He said the public is “being lied to.”

“If it’s true that this great crisis is in fact a reality, hang me from a tree, I’ll have no problem with it,” Oliva said. “Listen, you’re being boondoggled, my friend.”

Oliva pointed to a recent state audit that identifies about $508 million in “cash and cash equivalents” on MDC’s books. While the college complains that some of its facilities are in dilapidated shape — and has distributed photos to make its case — Oliva says the audit proves MDC is actually sitting on a half-billion dollars.

“You should not have elevators that don’t work; you should not have classrooms that have holes in the walls,” Oliva said. “You have the money to do these things.”

MDC officials call Oliva’s criticisms unjustified. College provost Rolando Montoya said the audit cited by the lawmaker is in a format that can be misleading — lumping various cash funds together even though most of the money is in restricted accounts and can only be used for certain purposes.

In another section of the audit, it lists MDC’s cash reserves as less than $53 million — a figure the college says reflects its rainy-day fund. Those cash reserves are a bit higher than the state minimum, MDC says, but it is still only enough to cover emergency expenses for about six weeks.

Oliva has also questioned MDC’s spending choices — particularly on Tuyo, an upscale downtown restaurant affiliated with the college’s culinary school. In a recent TV interview, Oliva expressed doubts over the need for MDC to have a “fine dining restaurant complete with a wine list, and a kitchen that would be envied by any restaurant in this town.”

Montoya responded that an in-house restaurant is a standard training tool at culinary schools. Should MDC’s students receive less, he asked, because they are generally low-income?

“I want the ones who graduate from here to be able to work as chefs … in the best and most luxurious restaurants,” Montoya said. “We don’t want it to be inferior in quality.”

In defense of its spending, MDC cites a state analysis showing it spends the least per student of any of Florida’s 28 community colleges: $4,734 per year.

Thanks to that efficiency, administrators say they frequently have money left over from the operating budget, which has enabled MDC to sock away millions for construction and building repairs. Montoya said MDC is forced to do that because the state doesn’t provide enough construction dollars. Some years, the state provides none — for a school that serves some 165,000 students across eight campuses.

According to this year’s MDC budget, the college has about $375 million in its construction account.

Asked why this money can’t address the glaring problems at some campuses, MDC officials said the dollars are already spoken for — they’re earmarked for projects such as classroom renovations at the West Campus, and new parking garages at three campuses.

At the Miami Herald’s request, Miami accountant Tony Argiz — chairman and CEO of Morrison, Brown, Argiz & Farra — reviewed the audit that some lawmakers say shows MDC is flush with cash.

“Sure, this balance sheet looks large,” Argiz said. But upon closer inspection, MDC has relatively slim cash reserves for such a gigantic operation, said Argiz, who has served on a large number of local charitable boards, including the foundations of MDC and Florida International University.

When told that MDC has squirreled away hundreds of millions of dollars into its construction fund, Argiz called it a sign of a “well-run shop” but said it hardly meant the college is rich.

“Go to the place and you can tell the humbleness of the place. They’re tight for money,” Argiz said. “Walk through that facility. They’re not hoarding anything.”

With the Legislature unwilling to back a sales-tax referendum, the college may need to keep squeezing money out of operations to pay for construction needs.

Political consultant David Custin predicted that MDC’s general budget should fare OK in future years, as South Florida lawmakers will continue to gain clout. But Custin also called Padrón “the biggest loser of the session,” and he said it was the college president, not lawmakers, who had acted like a bully.

“He embarrassed himself,” Custin said. “He embarrassed the institution. It was a very arrogant approach to policy.”

Yet email records obtained by the Miami Herald show that Padrón received plenty of praise for his combative stance. Florida’s GOP leadership has for years been criticized for inadequately funding education, and lawmakers’ refusal to allow the college to seek out local dollars struck some as adding insult to injury.

“This is the right fight at the right time,” wrote Frank Nero, the former head of the Beacon Council, Miami-Dade County’s economic development agency. “Education for ALL our residents is the foundation of economic development and the opportunity to support one’s family and community. Sometimes we can not DO more with less … We can only do less with less.”

Wrote James McDonald, a village of Pinecrest councilman: “Sorry to read about your difficulties with the boys in Tallahassee … we are in a period of dysfunctional government dominated by people who hate government but love the power.”

Even salsa music star Willy Chirino — an MDC alum — chimed in, telling Padrón “I am here to help.”

In a statement, Padrón said he was “disappointed” with the final outcome but grateful for all of the support.

“Meantime, we’ll continue carrying out our mission to change lives through education with excellence, as best we can,” he wrote. “We will continue being creative, resourceful, and industrious.”