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Misinformation hinders Senate committee debate

When students learned of a Florida Senate budget proposal to cut USF funding by 58 percent, many immediately set out to change the minds of the Legislature before the cuts became a reality.

During Wednesday’s Senate Budget Committee meeting, some compromise was made – a proposal to hold $25 million in USF funds until USF Polytechnic becomes the independent Florida Polytechnic University was taken off the table – any other positive change was stifled by the many inaccuracies that riddled discussions.

Though Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and a vocal critic of USF leadership, said that he is open to compromising on the budget, a fair compromise will not be met until students, USF leadership and legislators can have an honest and accurate debate on USF’s current fiscal situation.

While many of the students who spoke at the meeting were uninformed about the budget, legislators were uninformed themselves. During the meeting, Alexander claimed that USF had $163 million in cash reserves as of Dec. 31. However, the University has about $121 million as of June 2011 and University spokeswoman Lara Wade-Martinez said in an email that USF estimates it will only have about $76 million in reserve by June, much of which is already allocated toward summer school and other expenses.

“I don’t believe the University of South Florida is being held out for any special treatment here,” said Sen. Don Gaetz (R-Destin), the incoming Senate president. “I believe our budget plan will call on all our state institutions to tap their reserves. It is a rainy day, after all, that’s what rainy day (funds) are for.”

However, according to Wade-Martinez, the reserve fund is also meant to cover another loss of funding; $25 million in federal stabilization funds. It was not money saved for a rainy day, nor was it money saved in anticipation of potentially losing more than half of its budget. Even if the money saved could be used toward state cuts as well as the federal cuts, the Senate is not simulating a rainy day – they are imposing a hailstorm.

If the cuts were to pass, USF would have a budget of negative $52.7 million by July 1, which according to Chief Financial Officer John Long would violate Florida law that says universities must keep a reserve of at least 5 percent of general funds.

Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Daytona Beach, also claimed that students want tuition and fees raised. Yet students have actively protested a possible 15 percent tuition increase throughout the semester, in forms ranging from the Occupy USF movement to this month’s “Rally in Tally.”

USF student body President Matt Diaz and Lynn spoke about the possibility of increasing tuition; however, both missed the mark on this dubious solution to the budget. It is highly unlikely that any tuition increase could compensate for a 58 percent budget reduction. Even if tuition were to increase, in the wake of a 15 percent hike last academic year and dramatic cuts to state-funded scholarship programs such as Florida Bright Futures, it could drive many students away.

Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa, suggested that legislators “explain (the budget) to (USF) really clear so they will understand it.” As evidenced by Wednesday’s debate, legislators may need a translator of their own.