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Education

Political maneuvering over Poly is deja vu

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 04:40 AM
TAMPA -

The public took notice when the state Legislature approved an expensive new university program and pushed aside the panel created to keep empire-building politics out of state university matters.

It was 10 years ago, and more than 60 percent of Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment creating a Board of Governors with the power to operate, regulate and be "fully responsible" for the entire state university system.

Here we are again.

A single, powerful lawmaker pushed a bill through the state Legislature this year creating a university in Lakeland, his backyard. It sidelined a Board of Governors' plan to create Florida Polytechnic University years down the road, after it met criteria to prove it could survive.

Former Florida governor and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham has a word for that: "unconstitutional."

University governance scholar Richard Novak doesn't go that far, but says Florida is on a dangerous course.

The Legislature's action "undermines the authority, the stature of the Board of Governors," Novak said from Washington, where he works with the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

And here's the problem with that.

"Resources get dispersed on competing activities," Novak said. "Needs of certain segments of the population get ignored, resources are spent on activities they shouldn't be spent on."

In short, precious funding is wasted.

"It's a path to mediocrity," Graham said, as other lawmakers take up the Polytechnic precedent and push for programs and universities in their backyards.

But the one group with legal standing to bring a constitutional case over Polytechnic's creation is the Board of Governors, and it has been generally quiet on the matter.

After Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill creating the university April 20, board Chairman Dean Colson released a statement.

"While the Board of Governors suggested one path," Colson said, "an alternative path was chosen by our elected officials and we respect that decision."

Before this, however, other board members had spoken up. When lawmakers introduced the Polytechnic bill late in the session, they said it merely affirmed the board's decision to create a new university.

Board member John Temple of Boca Raton called that "ludicrous."

The chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Lake Wales Republican JD Alexander, was pushing the bill.

"This is Alexander intimidating everybody," Temple said. "He threatened to hold up our budget and he intimidated people on this board. This is the wrong thing to do."

There's nothing new about politicians meddling in university issues.

"Some aspect of pork barrel politics goes back to … the 1800s," Novak said.

There was movement in the 1950s and '60s to "bring some logic to the governance and financing of higher education," he said. But it seems to be weakening now, with more and more cases across the country of "politics trumping strategy and policy."

Bob Graham was a key figure in the constitutional amendment creating the new Board of Governors in 2002. He's now part of a group that's suing the Legislature over who has the power to set tuition, the Board of Governors or the Legislature.

He said the case could go far beyond tuition issues, to the question of whether Alexander and other lawmakers had the power to toss aside the Board of Governors plan to create Florida Polytechnic University.

The statewide vote on the 2002 constitutional amendment came on the heels of the Legislature's decision to abolish the statewide university Board of Regents. The two bodies were at odds over the creation of a medical school at Florida State University; the board opposed it as an excessive, unwarranted expense.

The public spoke when it approved the amendment, said Lake Wales-based lawyer Robin Gibson, who crafted the amendment language.

"It was clear they wanted somebody else, other than the Legislature, in charge of the university system," Gibson said.

At the time, proponents said it would end the legislative micromanaging and the power struggle between the Legislature and statewide university officials.

It didn't.

Five years later, the new Board of Governors joined the lawsuit against the Legislature over tuition powers. And the Legislature's response: a proposal to gut the Board of Governors.

Under State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan, the board and Legislature called a truce and agreed to share the powers. But Graham and several others pressed on with their own case seeking to get the Legislature out of the mix.

The case suffered a setback in October when a three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal said raising and spending state money was "the quintessential legislative power."

But the state Supreme Court agreed in January to hear Graham's arguments.

Gibson, still working with Graham, said the group isn't challenging the Legislature's role — except when it comes to the universities.

The constitutional amendment that voters approved in 2002 was an "all-inclusive transfer of the Legislature's" power to the Board of Governors to govern, control and regulate the state universities, including setting tuition, Gibson wrote in a brief.

He expects the court to start hearing arguments this summer. Although Gibson believes the 2002 constitutional amendment was clear, it's not perfect. The language could be more precise on the scope of the Board of Governors' powers.

He said the Poly issue "demonstrates the need" for the state Supreme Court to sharpen that language.

As it is now, the current Board of Governors is afraid of the Legislature's power to cut its appropriation, Gibson said. But a Supreme Court affirmation of the board's role would make budget-cutting threats harder to enforce.

It probably won't change what's already happened. "Polytech is, for all intents and purposes, over and done with," he said.

What matters is "what lies ahead."

The Poly independence push began last summer with a proposal to split the University of South Florida Polytechnic campus away from Tampa-based USF. At the time, state Sen. Jack Latvala, a St. Petersburg Republican, chimed in that a Pinellas County contingent also wanted an independent university and he had considered pushing for USF-St. Petersburg's independence.

And state Sen. Mike Bennett hinted at a movement to split off the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus.

The creation of Florida Polytechnic University, in Graham's view, "will open the floodgates."

BOARD OF GOVERNORS: KEY DATES

2001 The Florida Legislature dismantles the Florida Board of Regents, which had been responsible for overseeing and managing the state universities.

2002 Florida voters approve a constitutional amendment to create a new panel, the 17-member Board of Governors.

2007 The Board of Governors joins former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and others in a suit saying the board, not the Legislature, has the power to set tuition. They contend low tuition starves the universities but lawmakers keep it low to curry favor with voters.

2008 The Legislature proposes to reduce the board’s size and role.

2009 Frank Brogan becomes State University System chancellor and begins working on a truce for the board to share tuition-setting powers with the Legislature. Lawmakers approved a plan whereby they would set tuition, but give universities the power to increase it up to 15 percent a year until it hits the national average.

2011 An appellate court panel rules that the Legislature has tuition-setting powers.

2012 The Florida Supreme Court agrees to hear the tuition case, whose outcome, Graham said, could effect the Legislature’s decision to establish Florida Polytechnic University in conflict with a plan already approved by the Board of Governors.

Lindsay Peterson


lpeterson@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7834

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