Gov. Rick Scott, lawmakers tangle with universities over tuition costs

Gov. Rick Scott and legislators are so opposed to tuition increases that they want to change the law to get even more control over future hikes.

Currently, state universities can ask the Board of Governors for up to 15 percent higher rates, known as tuition differential. Additionally, there is an automatic increase to keep up with inflation. House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz have proposed cutting that flexibility by more than half. Gov. Rick Scott wants to eliminate it altogether, making it that much tougher to raise tuition.

That’s all good news for students and families worried about paying for higher education in the coming years. As for universities? Most say they’re not fighting this united effort by a fiscally conservative governor and Legislature.

It also helps that as the economy has improved, so have the dollars Florida is sending to its universities.

“Because of how much state funding has been provided ... there wouldn’t be a need to raise tuition like we have had to do in the past few years with the recession,” said Mark Walsh, the University of South Florida’s assistant vice president for government relations. “We weren’t anticipating using anything close to the 15 percent (flexibility) that was permissible anyway.”

But while they’re not fighting measures to curb the inflation and differential adjustments, the University of Florida and Florida State University are saying that as the state’s most preeminent institutions, they deserve special consideration.

The University of Florida wants to become one of the nation’s top 10 public universities, but its tuition is about half the average of that elite group, President Bernie Machen said Wednesday. Removing flexibility in one area should be offset by more resources elsewhere, he added.

“We’ve also got a governor that has supported higher education with appropriations, so there’s several ways to get there,” Machen said. “I think the University of Florida should have tuition flexibility.”

Florida State University, too, should be able to increase tuition more than other state institutions, said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, widely considered a likely pick to lead FSU as its next president.

“I think given the status that we’ve given (UF and FSU), that’s something to consider if the argument is to go down to zero,’’ he said, referring to the tuition differential and inflation adjustments.

Florida instituted the tuition differential in 2007 for selected schools and extended it to all state universities in 2009 after officials argued their tuition was too low, and that public funding was inadequate as tax revenues slumped along with the economy. Other states, such as Texas and Virginia, also have flexible tuition structures for public universities.

Lawmakers now say lowering or eliminating the tuition differential will help families better predict costs. They are especially concerned about stabilizing the state’s pre-paid college program, which is required to forecast tuition rates years in advance and set premiums accordingly.

Senate Bill 1400 fulfills Scott’s request to get rid of tuition differential. The bill, which has received more attention for another provision that allows certain undocumented immigrants to receive in-state tuition, hasn’t been heard yet in committee.

SB 1148 reduces tuition differential to 6 percent, as Weatherford and Gaetz suggested, but it also eliminates the inflation provision, as does Scott. The Senate’s Education Appropriations Subcommittee approved it Wednesday with only one dissenting vote.

Due to an amendment offered Wednesday, the measure now also includes language that would require the Legislature to approve any new bachelor’s degree programs at the state’s community colleges. That addition was what drew the lone dissent, from Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami.

The House is expected to unveil its tuition measure on Thursday.

Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who chairs the education budget committee, said he believes SB 1148 is the more reasonable approach because the House fought last year for a small tuition increase.

“I’ve got to operate in the political reality that is,” Galvano said. “Obviously the governor wants to be more aggressive, but when we presented the 15 to 6 (decrease) we didn’t get a lot of push back.”

That is because state universities see the writing on the wall. A Board of Governors stacked with Scott appointees means schools are not likely to be granted a higher tuition differential. The Legislature passed a bill in 2012 that would have allowed unlimited tuition hikes at UF and FSU, but Scott vetoed it. Last year, Scott approved a pre-eminence bill that awarded FSU and UF additional state funding but did not include the tuition provision.