TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Legislature — not the Board of Governors — has the power to set tuition rates and fees at public universities, but lawmakers cannot tell the panel how to manage those institutions, the state Supreme Court ruled today.
The unanimous decision was mostly a defeat for former Gov. Bob Graham and other plaintiffs who had challenged lawmakers' authority over tuition and fees. They argued that a state constitutional amendment creating the board also transferred those functions to the new panel, but the high court disagreed.
"That's very disappointing," Graham said when informed by The Associated Press of the decision.
However, the plaintiffs' lawyer, Robin Gibson, said a finding that the Legislature's taxing power — rather than its legislating authority — lets it set tuition and fees also means lawmakers cannot dictate academic policies such as creating new law or medical schools.
"That's none of their business," Gibson said. "The Board of Governors can do that."
Graham, also a former U.S. senator, led a petition drive that put the amendment on the ballot after the Legislature abolished the Board of Regents, which previously had overseen the State University System. Voters approved the amendment in 2002.
Its avowed purpose is to reduce the influence of politics on higher education by giving the board, with most of its 17 members appointed by the governor, responsibility to operate, regulate and control the 12 universities and "be fully responsible for the management of the whole university system."
However, Justice Barbara Pariente wrote for the court that the amendment "is devoid of any indication of an intent" to turn over to the board the "quintessentially legislative power" to set tuition and fees. That authority is part of the Legislature's "constitutional duty to raise and appropriate state funds," Pariente wrote.
"We are reviewing the case, but if the initial summary is correct, this is a huge victory for the Legislature and for Florida," said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. "Tuition will be set by those who are elected and accountable to Floridians."
Tuition has been and continues to be a contentious issue.
Gov. Rick Scott is opposing new tuition increases. The Republican governor last year also vetoed a bill that would have let the state's top two research schools, the University of Florida and Florida State University, exceed a 15 percent annual cap on tuition increases.
University presidents, meanwhile, have agreed not to ask for another boost in tuition in exchange for the equivalent of a 15 percent increase — $118 million — in additional taxpayer funds. They also want the Legislature to restore $300 million cut from their budgets last year.
The opinion affirmed prior decisions by a trial judge and the Tallahassee-based 1st District Court of Appeal.
Justice Jorge Labarga wrote in a concurring opinion that the ruling does not address the issue of the Legislature attaching contingencies to its appropriations for the universities "that would encroach on the board's constitutional responsibility for management of the university system." He warned that such provisos may not be used to impair the board's ability to manage the system.
Graham said that portion of the ruling was encouraging because the board now has the ability to make management decisions without political interference.
Similar boards in many other states, particularly those with elite university systems, have tuition-setting authority, Graham said. He added it's unlikely, though, he'll attempt another amendment specifically to give Florida's board that authority.
"We'll probably think about a lot of things, but I know what is involved in a citizens petition and getting it passed," Graham said.
Chief Justice Ricky Polston and Justices R. Fred Lewis and Charles Canady concurred in the result of the main opinion but not in its reasoning.
Besides Graham, a Democrat, other plaintiffs included Republican former U.S. Rep. Lou Frey and former Florida State University and American Bar Association president Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, a Democrat who also once served in the Florida House.
The board at one point joined the plaintiffs but withdrew after reaching a compromise with the Legislature. They agreed the Legislature could raise tuition across-the-board while the board could approve additional increases at the request of each university. Combined, though, increases cannot exceed 15 percent in a single year at each campus.
For the past six years, the Legislature has reduced state support to the universities by $1 billion including the current budget year's $300 million cut. Tuition has gone up in each of those years to partly offset the state reductions, but Florida's rates remain among the lowest in the nation.