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University board has deal with Legislature

TALLAHASSEE — The Legislature will continue to play a leading role in setting tuition for Florida’s 11 public universities under an agreement reached Wednesday with the board that oversees the schools.

The deal follows a decision Monday by the Board of Governors to withdraw from a lawsuit against the Legislature over which body controls tuition and other governance issues.

“For the Board of Governors, the lawsuit is over,” board chairwoman Ava Parker said at a news conference with Gov. Charlie Crist and Republican and Democratic legislative leaders.

The suit, though, could continue for the Legislature because the settlement doesn’t affect several other plaintiffs, including former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat, and former Congressman Lou Frey, a Republican. It’s set for trial July 6 in Circuit Court.

Work will begin immediately on drafting legislation and board rules to put the agreement into effect, said House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala.

“It’s our time to focus on world-class education, not on world-class lawsuits,” said Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach.

Parker called the settlement “a comprehensive amicable agreement.” A key provision tracks a tuition law the Legislature passed last year.

The agreement gives lawmakers the power to set base tuition rates and delegate authority to the board over additional increases sought by individual universities.

The law allows for increases in base and differential tuition at each school totaling no more than 15 percent until reaching the national average.

The remaining plaintiffs contend the law violates an amendment to the Florida Constitution they say gives the board sole authority over tuition. Graham helped lead efforts to get the amendment, which created the board as an independent constitutional body, on the ballot by petition in 2002, and voters then adopted it.

The board later joined the suit initially filed by the other plaintiffs in 2007. That created tension between the board and lawmakers who still hold the universities’ purse strings.

Robin Gibson, a Lake Wales lawyer representing Graham and the other original plaintiffs, said he will have to consult with his clients after reviewing the settlement before any decision is made on whether they might drop the lawsuit.

Gibson, though, said the settlement’s tuition provision is not what they were hoping for.

“Our position all along is that the electorate decided they didn’t want a governance system established by the Legislature or abolished by the Legislature,” Gibson said. “The people have decided the Board of Governors was going to make those decisions. They don’t have the authority to delegate to the Legislature.”

The amendment was a response to a decision by then-Gov. Jeb Bush and the Legislature to abolish the Board of Regents, which previously oversaw the universities.

It happened during a dispute over creating new medical and law schools sought by many lawmakers but opposed by the board as unnecessary and wasteful. The Legislature then went ahead with the new schools and established separate boards of trustees for each university.

The amendment kept the trustees but they now operate under the Board of Governors.

The settlement includes provisions that give the Board of Governors exclusive authority to delegate powers and duties of the trustees, and to act on their requests to establish or increase certain fees. The Legislature, though, would have authority to set fee caps.

The board also would regulate university information technology.