Cannon calls for passing budget in 60 days and retooling higher ed

Jan 10, 2012

Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon says creating a balanced state budget, drawing new district maps and reforming  higher education are the big three items he expects to be the focus of Florida’s legislative session. Regan McCarthy reports Speaker Cannon says he expects this session to be just as open, transparent and respectful as last session.

House Speaker Dean Cannon says he wants the legislature to focus on three issues this session. Two of those items are things the legislature is constitutionally required to do this year—pass a balanced budget and redraw the state’s district maps. Despite concerns that estimates about the state’s revenue won’t be published until the session is almost over, at the earliest, however Cannon is still stressing that he’d like House members to pass the budget within a normal 60-day session.

“This will be our sixth straight fiscal year in which our revenues fall short of our projected obligations. And that means   that we will be required to once again make hard decisions—differentiate our wants from our needs and our needs from our priorities.

The state will also be focusing on redistricting. Cannon says this year’s redistricting process will be unlike any before because of two new constitutional amendments that make new rules for the procedure in an effort to minimize gerrymandering and ensure minority voters’ voices are heard.

“It is no secret that I was not a supporter of those amendments. But that became irrelevant on Election Day, members. Once the voters approved those amendments they became a part of our constitution and as such we have a legal and a moral obligation to follow the letter of the law and we will.”

Beyond the state’s two constitutional duties, Cannon says Florida lawmakers need to address the state’s higher education system, which he says is “aggressively racing toward mediocrity.”                                                       

  “Florida once had a public higher education system built on a two-plus-two model with an overriding goal of providing access to higher education. 20 years later, after a steady stream of reform proposals, several originating from this house, We have a higher education system with no clear mission, universities presenting overlapping agendas despite limited public resources and our community colleges rapidly transforming themselves into four year degree granting institutions. We as a legislature, and I freely include myself in this, have contributed to this problem.”

Several years ago the legislature allowed community colleges to operate four-year degree programs, many which are similar to programs at the universities. Cannon says it’s time to stop playing “musical chairs” with the universities’ governance structure. He’s tasking the higher education committee with meeting with each of the state’s university presidents. Some members of the legislature have said passing an education reform bill before 2013 is impossible and while Cannon says he recognizes it might be the case that no higher education reform will pass this session, he says he wants to take advantage of Republican Representative Bill Proctor, who serves as the education committee chairman, before he is term limited out.                          

“Dr. Proctor was a leader in this state before I was born. He is, along with the beaches, our sunshine and the Everglades, one of Florida’s most valuable resources in my opinion.”

Cannon says the education committee will meet with the Florida State University and the University of Florida Presidents this Friday and it will meet with the remaining 9 university presidents next week.

Representative Erik Fresen, a Republican from Miami, is vice-chair of the House Pre-K though 12 education policy committee. Fresen says a strategic vision for the higher education commission has been lacking over the past 20 years. He says right now the university systems are more like “fiefdoms”         

“So to try to get at least some strategic vision of what our university is going to look like, what its role is and more importantly what its purpose is going to be over the next 15 years is a daunting task, but its one we take by the reins.”

Meanwhile, Representative Dwight Bullard, a Democrat from Miami who is also a high school teacher, says Speaker Cannon “missed the mark.”                                                               

“The idea that we are going to be focusing on the deformation of the higher education system here in the state of Florida is going to be trouble, because for years and years and years that has been the corner stone of our economy and now to sort of fiddle around with a traditionally underfunded part of our state budget is really problematic.”

Lawmakers agreed that balancing the budget and drawing new district maps will be a difficult challenge in the coming session.  Representative Fresen notes the legislature was called back for as many as 5 special sessions when it went through the redistricting process 10 years ago and he says he wouldn’t be surprised to be called back for a special session this year.