House, Senate propose tuition hike

Though the Florida House and Senate differ on allocations to the state university system for the upcoming fiscal year, they agree right now that more money needs to come from students’ pockets.

Both the House and Senate are debating the differences in their individual proposed 2010-11 fiscal year budgets today in Tallahassee, but a portion of what they agree on in their plans includes an across-the-board 8 percent increase in tuition.

The House and Senate proposals also are banking on another 7 percent boost in differential tuition fees, which would be an option for individual universities. That could provide an estimated extra $68 million for the state system, USF Government Relations Lobbyist Mark Walsh said at the Faculty Senate meeting Wednesday.

Lawmakers mandated the same 8 percent tuition increase last year, and USF took advantage of the 7 percent increase in differential tuition. It resulted in an increase of $586 for a 30-credit-hour course load in one year for in-state undergraduates. With the new proposal, students would pay roughly an additional $673 for 30 credit hours in one year.

“What we didn’t have for years and what we don’t advocate now is that tuition be the only thing that goes up, and that the state doesn’t put in an additional amount of money,” Walsh said after the meeting. “… But in Florida even a 15 percent increase is a bargain. So tuition probably needs to be more, but we still don’t think that lets the state off the hook (with allocations) so we can gain momentum.”

The House and Senate differ, however, on how much in total should be allocated for the state university system next fiscal year, which begins in July.

The House total is about $3.41 billion, a nearly identical amount as last year. The Senate proposal is more generous, Walsh said, allocating around $3.62 billion. That would be a 6.35 percent increase from last fiscal year’s total budget.

However, both include the anticipated federal stimulus funds, which are likely to be in the range of $150 million and will stop coming after the 2010-11 fiscal year.

The House proposal is more of a “break-even” budget, Walsh said. And it’s hard to get excited about that, said Provost Ralph Wilcox, because next fiscal year stimulus funds will stop coming, as universities search to find new sources of revenue.

It will make the prospect of hiring new tenured faculty “significantly limited,” Wilcox said. There are no faculty members who are paid with stimulus dollars, but some staff members are, Wilcox said.

“We’re not elated,” Wilcox said. “We’re quietly comfortable, I suppose, with what we’re hearing from Tallahassee. But there’s a lot of time left in this session, and things could get worse quickly. Things can also improve.”

Walsh said the key in the future will be finding sources of recurring revenue to fill in for the non-recurring revenue that may leave, much like the stimulus funds.

One of the ways USF did that is by offering retirement packages this year. By using one-time, non-recurring stimulus money for retirement packages, it can help alleviate recurring expenses like payroll.

Wilcox said the goal for the University during the economic struggle is to preserve programs, tenured faculty and quality of academics. Last year, along with the in-state undergraduate increase, out-of-state and graduate tuition rose.

In the coming weeks, the House and Senate will meet during “budget conferencing” to try and iron out the differences in their proposals, Walsh said. The goal for lawmakers during the current 60-day legislative session, which began in early March, is to push a single budget to Gov. Charlie Crist’s desk for his signature.

After that, USF gets its individual appropriations and constructs its own budget.

“Some (state) agencies are going way back,” Walsh said. “There are many items in the higher education budget that are not state universities and are taking 10 to 15 percent cuts … Overall, you never like to be satisfied in the process, but based on where we thought we might be six months ago … it’s better than we thought it might be.”

Additional reporting by Anastasia Dawson