Lawmakers Reach Agreement On Higher Ed Changes

May 1, 2017

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TALLAHASSEE — House and Senate negotiators reached agreement Saturday on the major portions of a higher-education budget that will dramatically expand student financial aid, boost university funding and bring significant policy changes for universities and state colleges.

The deal announced by Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, who lead their chambers' higher-education budget committees, includes a $180 million increase for the Bright Futures merit-scholarship program.

The increase will cover full tuition and fees for the top-performing Bright Futures students, known as "academic scholars." It will also provide them with $300 per semester to cover books and will allow them to attend summer classes.

Equally significant was a record increase in programs helping students with financial need. It includes a $121 million boost in the Florida "student assistance grants," the largest state needs-based aid program. The agreement will also double a "first generation in college" program to more than $10 million, with the state providing a 2-to-1 match for the scholarship funding.

Another $500,000 will create a scholarship program to help students from farmworker families. Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has made raising the status of the state university system one of his top priorities.

Negron toured the 12 university campuses last spring gathering information to develop his proposal. As part of an agreement on the outline of a roughly $83 billion state budget, the House accepted Negron's higher-education package, while the Senate agreed to support initiatives by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, in the kindergarten through 12th-grade system. Senate and House leaders this weekend are continuing to negotiate details of a budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The budget must be finished Tuesday for the annual legislative session to end on time Friday, because of a constitutionally required 72-hour “cooling off” period before lawmakers can vote on the spending plan.

The agreement on higher-education issues also will expand the state's Benacquisto scholarships, which pay full tuition and costs for National Merit scholars, to include out-of-state students. Meanwhile, state grants for students who attend private colleges and universities will increase by $300 to $3,300.

More broadly, the 12 state universities will receive an increase of more than $300 million in operational funding, including $245 million in performance-based funds, a $20 million increase. The agreement provides $71 million to universities to attract top-level faculty and researchers, with another $50 million aimed at high-achieving medical, law and business schools.

Lawmakers' decision to expand financial aid will benefit Florida's 28 state colleges, but the system will face a $30 million reduction in remedial education funding under the budget agreement. The Senate, however, backed off a "suspension" of $30 million in performance funding for the colleges.

Universities and colleges also are expected to see major policy changes under a related bill (SB 374) that is part of the budget negotiations. The bill would require universities to offer block tuition, where students pay a flat fee per semester rather than a credit-hour charge, by the fall of 2018.

It would create a 13-member Board of Community Colleges to oversee the state college system, which is now under the Board of Education. In addition, the legislation would cap enrollment for students pursuing four-year degrees at state colleges to no more than 15 percent of the total enrollment at each school.

A major unresolved issue is a House proposal that would prohibit university and state college foundations, known as direct-support organizations, from using public funds to pay for employees. The measure would also require the foundations to disclose most of their records and activities, with the exception of private donor names.

The Senate opposes the measure, which will now go to Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, the two top budget chairmen.

Another issue still under negotiation is the $507 million Public Education Capital Outlay, or PECO, program, which pays for construction and maintenance projects for the higher-education and K-12 systems.