USF braces for legislative season


USF has packaged more than 700 pages of data during the past few months to prove to state legislators that the University is doing what it is supposed to.

In November, USF responded to a request for information sent from Gov. Rick Scott to all 11 state university presidents.

Last week, USF provided almost 600 pages in data ranging from graduate numbers to personal travel expenditures to State Sen. J.D. Alexander (R-Lake Wales) after he urged all universities to hurry in sending the information for the first Budget Committee meeting of the year.

All universities responded to both requests, and Alexander and Scott received thousands of pages of data.

Yet, not all are clear about the purpose of the data and focus on the universities, USF Provost Ralph Wilcox said.

“It’s clear to all of us that the governor, over the past six to nine months, has focused more and more on the State University System (SUS) and the role that it can play in supporting economic recovery and growth in the state of Florida,” he said. “On the one hand, we’re absolutely delighted that he’s focused on (us), and we hope the Legislature will be focused on the role the SUS can play moving forward. There’s no doubt Florida is lagging behind some other states when it comes to focus on and investment in higher education. The more focus, the greater the investment.”

The scrutiny on higher education comes after a year in which the USF System alone lost close to $40 million in state funding.

Wilcox said USF will have to find ways to balance its budget as possible future cuts to the SUS could come during the next season with the Legislature trying to shave off spending from the state budget.

“For every dollar less in budget reductions that we realize, it’s a dollar less we have to raise in revenues somewhere else, whether through student tuition or in other ways,” he said. “President (Judy) Genshaft and the rest of the leadership is very concerned over the prospect of having to raise tuition and fees in the year to come. That having been said, students have certain quality expectations of the University of South Florida — quality that we’re not about to compromise on.” Yet, when Scott delivered his State of the State speech on Tuesday, educator’s breathed a temporary sigh of relief.

Scott emphasized that the legislative season that opened Tuesday would increase funding to education — a stark contrast in tone from the previous year, when the governor proposed more than $1 billion in cuts to education.

“My recommended budget includes $1 billion in new state funding for education,” he said in his speech. “And I ask you to please consider that recommendation very carefully. On this point, I just cannot budge. I ask you again to send me a budget that significantly increases state funding for education. This is the single most important decision we can make today for Florida’s future.”

Scott’s budget, which he released in December, will now be debated on House and Senate floors.

All 11 state university presidents will meet with the House Committee on Education today to begin discussions.

The Senate Budget Committee meeting set for Friday, for which massive amounts of data were requested, was cancelled by Alexander, the committee’s chairman, who has been vocal in expressing his distaste for USF System leadership and his support for USF Polytechnic’s split from the system during the past year. Last year, USF Polytechnic was the only university in the state to receive capital funds.

“We can all acknowledge that both the chief budget officer in the Senate and House play a very, very important role,” Wilcox said. “Before it all starts and before it all ends, they are the ones in conversation with the leadership who determine the scope of the budget for the coming year.”

State Sen. Paula Dockery (R-Lakeland), who has publicly opposed Alexander’s strong stances on Polytechnic, said legislators are prepared to take a stand to ensure that fairness in budget cuts prevail.

“If there is any attempt to punish anybody or any institution that isn’t politically going along with the Legislature’s personal wishes, I think there are going to be a lot of legislators who will stand up and say ‘We’re not going to go along with this political retribution,'” she said to The Oracle. “In terms of across-the-board cuts to all colleges and universities, that may very well happen.”