Senate drops USF vs. Polytech budget hold-back

Feb 15, 2012

The Senate budget committee hearing almost broke down Wednesday over a battle to fund the University of South Florida and its Polytechnic Campus. Lynn Hatter reports after hours of blistering criticism, the Senate backed off a plan to hold back money from USF until it handed over Polytechnic as part of a plan to eventually make the campus an independent university.

The Senate’s budget for higher education takes $400 million  away from universities and directs the schools to use their savings to make up the difference.  Under the reduction plan, the state’s largest universities -- Florida State, the University of Florida, and the University of Central Florida—would take a one-time cut of 25-30-percent of their state funding. But one school—the University of South Florida—seemed to be taking a greater share of that cut...

 “I think his accusations are outrageous, and not supported by the facts.”  

USF is embroiled in a fight with Senate budget chairman J.D. Alexander over its Polytechnic Campus, which wants to become an independent school. Alexander supports those plans. And enclosed in the higher ed budget was an additional $25 million hold-back provision that Senator Evelyn Lynn said was meant to up the separation process.

 “That  money is intended for the University of South Florida will be held in advance, but will be returned once the separation by USF from Poly is completed.”  

The higher education budget also includes language that calls for an immediate separation of USF and its Polytech. The Polytech money, another $35 million—will be taken from USF once the two schools are separate.  There’s also the cost of absorbing Polytech’s faculty back into the main campus.

In all, the University of South Florida would have lost closer to 60-percent of its state funding. But Senate President Designate Don Gaetz said the budget cuts wouldn’t affect the universities day-to-day operations, since most of it is coming from savings.

 “The funds that are being swept are functionally funds that are in unrestricted reserves, like we sweep other unrestricted funds across the state. It’s my impression that your proposal does not reduce by one dollar the operating funds available to carry out the academic programs at our universities, is that the case ma’m?”   

Students and even the university’s President Judy Genshaft have been at the Capitol this week talking with legislators.  Lawmakers like Republican Jim Norman of Tampa, blasted the budget—and, its writers.

 “I’d love for you to set aside $25 million out of your university for any reason. My point is, this acceleration is on the back of students in college and …you don’t bargain futures like this, even in the appropriations process.”  

The Senate’s budget proposal shows that USF’s cut, minus costs associated with the polytech, is only slightly higher than other schools. But Lynn says the Polytech controversy has confused the budget and policy issues.

 “There’s another issue that’s concerning people. And we’re trying to mix apples and oranges. We have to take each as a separate issue. The funding issue is hitting all the universities across the board.”

Still, Senator Norman wanted to know why the chamber was including the split language in the budget in the first place.

 “The Board of Governors set up a step-by-step plan. Has there been any dragging feet, non-compliance, anything like that to take that action to make them comply?” 

And Alexander laid out a long list of grievances against USF.

"Starting with the dismissal of the campus chancellor who prepared the plan, along with a number of the senior staff there who had written the plan the Board of Governors approved.”

USF’s $25 million dollar funding holdback was ultimately dropped from the Senate’s plan. The money now goes back into the university’s general revenue fund and moves the total budget cut closer to that of the rest of the larger universities.