Tuition measures fly at Capitol

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Almost everyone in Tallahassee, from Gov. Rick Scott to House Speaker Will Weatherford to Senate President Don Gaetz, wants to keep tuition low in this election-year session. But reaching agreement on how to do that is proving to be complicated.

Three issues have now converged in the discussions over tuition. One effort would restrict how much universities can boost their prices without legislative approval. Another initiative would allow some undocumented immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition. And a third measure would return to the Legislature the power to grant new four-year degrees to state colleges.

The tuition bills have become a strategic battle for lawmakers and Scott, who are all trying to extract concessions from each other as they work toward a shared priority.

Creating the third high-profile vehicle on tuition this year, the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday approved a bill that combined the immigration language with the limit on universities' power to increase prices through "differential tuition."

The measure, approved by a 19-7 vote, would reduce the size of the annual increases universities are allowed to propose to the Board of Governors from 15 percent to 6 percent. Like the other two major bills dealing with tuition, it would also do away with an automatic increase universities are allowed to impose to account for inflation.

Most of the brief debate about the bill (HB 851) focused on the provision allowing undocumented students who have spent at least three years in Florida's public schools to pay the far cheaper in-state tuition rate. But Rep. Jeanette Nunez, the Miami Republican sponsoring the bill, touted the changes to differential charges as well.

"In fact, we're actually taking additional steps to reduce the burden on all of our students and their families," she said.

The committee vote came one day after Gov. Rick Scott indicated he might be able to support a bill (SB 1400) sponsored by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, that mirrors the House in-state tuition proposal but includes a sweetener for Scott, who has crusaded against higher tuition in recent years. The Latvala measure would do away with differential tuition entirely.

"(Latvala) understands the problem of high tuition, the problem of significant debt on our students, so I like his bill," Scott said Wednesday. "I'm sure the Legislature is going to continue to look at his bill, but I like his bill."

But the governor would not directly say whether he would sign the measure.

And Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, sounded more hesitant this week when asked whether he would swap in-state tuition for immigrants --- one of the speaker's top priorities --- for repealing differential tuition entirely, saying it was a "little early in week two to start talking about trading things."

But he said that, on the merits, he wouldn't support doing away with the law.

"I would say that I believe having a tuition differential still in statute is a good thing," he said. "I think it allows universities some flexibility. We don't know what the future budgets will look like."

The third proposal (SB 1148), which began as the Senate bill reducing the differential charge from 15 percent to 6 percent, was amended Wednesday to add in the language stripping the State Board of Education of the power to approve new four-year degrees.
Senate Education Appropriations Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, has pushed to crack down on state colleges offering higher degrees out of concern that those efforts are competing directly with state universities.

Asked about Latvala's bill, Galvano said he was working "in the political reality" after negotiating last year with House leaders who wanted to raise tuition. The Senate eventually relented, but Scott vetoed the increase.

"Obviously, the governor wants to be more aggressive," Galvano said Wednesday. "But when we presented the 15 to 6, we didn't get a lot of pushback. Now, maybe that's a strategy decision on the part of the universities, but it seems to be a more reasonable approach, especially with removing the (inflationary) automatic increase."

Weatherford told reporters that afternoon that he hadn't reviewed the language dealing with state colleges. He was then told it was tacked onto the differential tuition bill.

"Well, then we'll probably be talking about it in the future," he said.