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Friday, March 8, 2019

Florida senators aren't ready to overhaul university spending in wake of UCF scandal

Posted By on Fri, Mar 8, 2019 at 11:20 AM

Two Republican senators who play a major role in determining the education budget said Thursday they don’t see a need to overhaul higher-education rules, exposing a rift between the Senate and the House, which has prioritized the issue.

“I don’t think we have rampant abuses in the way our universities have been spending,” Senate Education Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, told The News Service of Florida. “

The House, with the backing of Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, is threatening to overhaul the higher-education budget in the wake of a financial scandal at the University of Central Florida, which misused tens of millions of dollars for the construction of a building. The University of South Florida and the University of Florida are also under scrutiny for potential misuse of taxpayer money for construction projects.

“What happened at UCF is not as if they were using these funds to send (officials) to Tahiti or something,” Stargel said. “At this point, I haven’t seen anything that has risen to the level of having some rampant overhaul or incredible changes to the system.”

Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, agreed with Stargel. He said he sees no reason to change course on what the Legislature has been doing in policy and funding for the higher-education system.

“Certainly, higher ed in Florida did not become No. 1 in the nation by accident. It was through a lot of really good policy and, honestly, let’s be frank, resources,” Bradley said. “I don’t see any reason why we should take the foot off the gas.”

The 60-day legislative session started Tuesday, with House and Senate leaders likely negotiating budget details in late April.

But on the opening day of the session, Oliva made clear that one of his top priorities would be to pass legislation changing spending rules in the university system, which he said engaged in “great excesses.”

Oliva said the House will prioritize legislation adjusting how universities receive public funds and amend the process universities go through when requesting money for new construction projects.

“Each new building will require a space-utilization study to justify its need,” Oliva said Tuesday. “Every building will require a down payment as well as an escrow account to ensure its future maintenance.”

The House has already moved forward with a bill (HB 7051) that would require the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees public universities, to develop a training program for university trustees. Under the proposal, training on construction spending would be included.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who over the last couple of months has laid out a number of education priorities, has not publicly addressed Oliva’s specific proposals. But he has urged lawmakers to support the university system, something Bradley commended the governor for doing.

“If we support our university system, our state colleges and primary and secondary education, as well as the reforms needed to improve educational opportunities across the board, then we will be setting the stage for future economic success that will be the envy of the nation,” DeSantis said during his State of the State address Tuesday.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, has expressed concern about rhetoric from some House Republicans in addressing university spending. He added that his thoughts are in line with the Senate and DeSantis. Yet he agreed that more training may be needed since misuse of public funds occurred at some public universities.

“Where we will find agreement is in transparency and training with spending rules,” said Smith, who represents the University of Central Florida area. “But we need to make sure they have the resources they need for capital outlay.”

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