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USF merger bill gets amendments, moves to House floor

House Bill 423, which would require USF to function under one accreditation for all three campuses, received amendments during a Tuesday committee meeting that would allow the satellite campuses more independance. ORACLE FILE PHOTO

The potential consolidation of USF's three campuses took one more step toward becoming a reality Tuesday afternoon when it was voted onto the floor of the Florida House of Representatives with some changes.

The university would still be combined under one accreditation, but an 11-page amendment proposed by Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, allows for satellite campuses to control their own budgets and leadership.

This independence would be done by establishing a task force that would consider the identity of the satellite campuses, how degree programs would work, set up a timeline for implementing changes and make fee recommendations. Each campus would retain the current leadership and separate budgets that would be approved by the main campus.

Additionally, the amendments establish that the Marine Science college, which is currently considered part of USF Tampa despite being taught at St. Petersburg, would be claimed by the St. Petersburg campus.

Finally, the USF board would be required to do a biennial regional impact report on funding and program impact on Pinellas, Sarasota and Manatee counties.

While the changes take steps toward allowing for more autonomy from the St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee campuses, critics of the merger don’t consider the amendment to be enough.

Some of the representatives expressed concerns about the bill and how quickly it was pushed into the Legislature. It didn’t appear before the beginning of the session, which didn’t allow representatives to discuss the issue with constituents before looking at the bill.

"I'm concerned that we're rushing into this before we've had a chance to hear from our community," Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, told the House Education committee.

One of the suggestions was to set the issue to the side of the session and come back to it in a year so that representatives and communities could consider the topic more thoroughly before making a decision.

"If we delay this for a year, then that's a year of that additional money that's going to come to USF not reaching the branch campuses," said Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, who sponsored the original version of HB 423.

Despite these concerns, the bill with the amendments passed the Education Committee 18-1, which sends it to the House floor. It has not been put on the calendar yet.

Ahern recognizes that the amendments won’t make everyone happy about the move, but said that he is glad the bill is moving forward.

"Postponing it may just be their way of making it go away altogether," Ahern said. "I'd rather see them working with us to make sure they get more representation going forward in all things USF."