The Florida Senate’s budget, which originally proposed slashing USF’s budget by 58 percent, passed with significant reductions and is being heralded as a victory – by all parties involved.
After a series of amendments filed by Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa, were passed by the Senate, USF received $47 million back in funding. The Senate Budget Committee, chaired by Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, had proposed cutting $79 million out of USF’s budget.
Yet also passed without much debate was the conforming bill to turn USF Polytechnic into an independent 12th university. Alexander has long supported the split and locked heads with USF leadership in championing it.
USF President Judy Genshaft said the Senate budget is encouraging.
The House, which proposed 8.4 percent budget cuts for all universities will discuss the Senate budget today.
“What we’ve seen so far has been tremendous and hopeful in moving us in the right direction,” she said Thursday. “We now have recovered to be on the same level as our peers. That, we’re very, very happy about. What I’ve always asked for and always said is that we be treated fairly.”
The fairness, said Norman, who proposed the amendments that were later co-signed by Alexander and Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormand Beach, was restored because of the response seen at the University.
“This shows the passion,” he said. “The entire Bay area rallied. Busloads of kids came up here because they were passionate about their education. Right or wrong, however it got reported, they were passionate about their education. That inspired me. These kids stood up to senators in the budget committee. I don’t know how many of us get up at 3 a.m. to come to session, but they did.”
Of the $79 million proposed cuts to the Tampa campus, only $45 million in cuts will stick. The initial proposal also returned all teaching faculty, students and the College of Pharmacy to the USF System without funding after the new Polytechnic University was created.
The budget now compensates USF with $10 million for faculty, despite their estimated worth of $18 million, with future possible negotiation. The College of Pharmacy, which formerly received $6 million, now will receive $3 million on a recurring basis, something Genshaft said she is concerned about.
Alexander said the funding for the College of Pharmacy is “more than adequate,” and that the University of Florida operates its pharmacy school of 1,754 students with no support from the state. Alexander later called USF Polytechnic students “University of Florida wannabes.”
“A couple years ago, USF got the School of Pharmacy approved by the Board of Governors saying it would cost no additional state support, and quite frankly, we had a bit of a discussion and ultimately appropriated $6 million for the potential support of the program ultimately at Polytech,” he said. “In the interim, it has been operated and started in Tampa.”
The money restored to USF was not taken from the $27.3 million set aside for the creation of Florida Polytechnic University, which currently has no faculty or students, and likely won’t for a few years. The money was taken from the “Qualified Expenditure Category for Economic Development Tools Fund,” where Alexander said it was unnecessary.
Lynn said the compromise settled upon was one that greatly benefitted USF, which now faces a smaller percentage cut that is comparable to rivals Florida State University and UF.
“This has certainly been a very contentious issue because those people who have very special interests for their community at the University of South Florida fought hard and long,” Lynn said. “I appreciate Sen. Alexander and those people fighting hard found a common ground. I think it’s tremendously advantageous to the school.”
Sen. Larcenia Bullard, D-Miami, who returned to the Senate after heart complications, expressed her support for the amendments as a testament to her health.
“I happen to be standing on this floor today because of a doctor who was trained at USF and other doctors trained at USF,” she said. “I’m a living testimony that good things are happening at USF.”
Yet some thought the compromises shouldn’t have been necessary in the first place.
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said the initial budget was something that should not be quickly swept over.
“It’s just unfortunate we’re here having to deal with an issue that should have never came about because of whatever – politics, personalities, whatever it may have been,” he said. “We shouldn’t have had to be here to begin with in dealing with the University of South Florida and the cuts proposed early on because they were truly unfair cuts.”
In an interview with The Oracle, Fasano said he hopes the House of Representatives rejects the bill to create an independent Polytechnic and restores more money to USF.
“It was great to see everyone thanking everyone on the floor, but we shouldn’t have had to be there in the first place,” he said. “It was because you had a powerful budget chair who was unhappy he couldn’t get his own way and then his vindictiveness showed up in the budget.”
Norman said that all parties were cooperative in reaching a compromise.
“We’ve come a long way,” he said. “How we got here? I don’t have a crystal ball. But let me tell you, starting a week or so ago when Sen. Alexander restored the $25 million, he expressed good faith to support USF. Through the dialogue we’ve had, he’s come to support it.”
Genshaft said despite the budget restorations, USF still faces dire economic conditions.
“All the universities are looking at significant cuts. For one year, we might be able to weather it, but it will be very tight,” she said. “And we would have to be very, very careful. There won’t be as many classes taught by … at least, we could weather it for one year, but not longer than that, because we’d be using up all our reserves.”