Budget battle continues with few USF legislators

As the Florida Senate prepares for an discussion today on its proposed budget cuts to USF and the immediate separation of the Polytechnic campus, the Legislature has become polarized concerning whether USF is being treated fairly.

Though the legislators have ties to a wide range of universities, on Wednesday six senators signed amendments to the budget that would return funding to USF after the Senate Budget Committee, chaired by Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, initially proposed a 58 percent reduction to USF’s budget.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, proposed an amendment Wednesday that would transfer $3 million from a fund used to create a “Farm Calendar,” which provides information on soil conditions to farmers, to help the USF System fund the College of Pharmacy located on the USF Polytechnic campus. If a bill proposed by Alexander and Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormand Beach, is passed, the branch campus would become an independent university immediately and USF would have to operate the College of Pharmacy without state funding.

“The strange thing about (the Farm Calendar) appropriation is that the Commissioner of Agriculture did not ask for it,” Greg Giordano, chief legislative assistant for Fasano, said in an email to The Oracle. “Farmers don’t want it. In fact, nobody has come forward to claim responsibility for the appropriation.”

Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa, proposed three amendments Tuesday that would return more than $56 million of the $79 million that could be cut from USF’s funding to “prevent a floor battle” between the House and Senate when the budget is in discussion.

Yet the six senators to pledge their support to USF are not the six legislators that call the University their alma mater.

Of the 160 members of the Florida House and Senate, six legislators, who did not sign the amendments, hold degrees from USF, founded in 1956.

Thirty-seven have degrees from the University of Florida, founded in 1853, and 27 have degrees from Florida State University, founded in 1883. Many legislators hold degrees from multiple universities, but the majority are from private institutions and out-of-state schools, including three with GEDs.

The Senate Budget Committee’s appropriations to higher education, overseen by Lynn and Alexander, both graduates of UF, were not spread evenly across the 11 state universities.

While USF had an initial proposed budget cut of 58 percent, UCF was slated to be cut 34.9 percent, UF would face a 25.8 percent reduction and FSU a 22.3 percent reduction.

UF alumni hold three out of four positions on the Florida Cabinet. The fourth is Gov. Rick Scott, who did not earn degrees from a Florida university.

Yet Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, a USF graduate who spent most of her college career at New College, said the power that universities hold in the Legislature extends beyond the number of graduate alumni with positions.

“UF and FSU have very traditional and longtime ties,” she said. “I think there could be some more work done here with USF to make sure there are strong ties. I’m sure there are efforts, but it’s still a very FSU vs. UF sort of rivalry up here. There’s the Gator caucus and there’s a Seminole caucus, but I’ve never been invited to a USF caucus. My degree is out there, you don’t have to dig for it, so certainly if there was one, I’d hope somebody would invite me.”

Mark Walsh, USF director of Governmental Affairs, said USF typically has between three to four lobbyists in Tallahassee at a time, but he is the only one with a consistent presence.

Vasilinda said USF students should advocate for their own rights.

“The political makeup of the legislature I work with is very concerned with economic development,” she said. “What students can do is really communicate to legislators how important your education is to (them) and how it ties to the future. I would like to hear (students) all come up and say, ‘This is our future. This is how we’re going to compete as a nation, and we don’t feel as well-prepared as we might be,’ and to push. Say the things that are important.”

Vasilinda said she would advocate for USF to receive fair treatment in the budget proposals, but thinks that no university should receive any cuts. Instead, the state should find other sources of revenue, such as Internet sales taxes, she said.

USF graduate Rep. Peter Nehr, R-Tarpon Springs, said he is also opposed to the Senate’s proposed cuts to USF and will make sure no “penalizing language” affects the University. However, he said he rarely hears of USF concerns.

“I hear from the University of Florida all the time, but I rarely hear from the University of South Florida,” he said.

Nehr, whose son graduated from UF, is a member of the House Gator Caucus. He said USF needs more representation in the legislature.

“Personally, I think the University of South Florida needs to be a lot stronger in getting together with all of their alumni to make sure that when there are issues that are very important to their college, they can immediately get together with all of their alumni and express their concerns right away,” he said.

Walsh said that having alumni in the legislature is not the only important factor necessary for USF’s interests to be protected.

“We have many great champions for USF in the Legislature today who are not alumni and have no direct personal or family affiliation with USF,” he said. “But they recognize the impact that USF has on their communities and want to help. Having said that, I would love to see more USF alumni elected to public office at all levels of government.”

Until then, Nehr said USF students, who will be returning to Tallahassee on Monday to deliver letters to legislators, should make their presence known at the capitol.

“Students at USF need to know that they need to get much more involved in politics if they want to save their school,” he said. “I would suggest that someone take the lead and make sure they get a lot of people together. Then when there are issues that affect USF, whether that’s the budget or any other kind of laws, there is a unified effort to make sure all of the legislature understand their concerns. They need to be prepared ahead of time.”