TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - House Speaker Will Weatherford told the panel that oversees the state university system on Thursday that the 6 percent tuition increase in his chamber's budget is still negotiable.
In a short visit to the Board of Governors meeting at Florida A&M University, Weatherford said the House doesn't want to burden still-struggling families with too high an increase, but that the state's tuition is the 48th-lowest of the 50 states.
The Wesley Chapel Republican said lawmakers are trying to find a balance between investing in higher education and asking students to invest, too.
Pulling out his cell phone, Weatherford said tuition is a huge bargain. Florida students' out-of-pocket costs at state universities "is about the same amount of money that they spend on this," he said holding up his phone.
"Now we talk about how we value education in our system and how we value education in our society, but our students and our parents are spending as much on a cell phone every year as they do paying tuition for their child or themselves to do to a university in Florida.
"That system, long-term, can't work."
Over the last few years, Florida has raised tuition 15 percent a year.
Weatherford left the door open to bargain the increase down to 3 or 4 percent, which he said is the consumer price index for higher education.
Both the House and Senate plan to restore $300 million slashed from university budgets last year, and Weatherford predicted the Board of Governors would see "very positive budget numbers out of the House."
"We fully funded the $300 million the same way we took it from you," he said. "Sorry about that – but we're giving it back. We've put another $65 million in there, and we believe we are giving the university system the resources that they need."
Relations between the Legislature and the universities have greatly improved, Weatherford noted – considering that "four years ago, we were suing each other over who was in charge of tuition and who was in charge of our university system."
Now, he added, the conversation has shifted to the universities developing criteria for performance-based funding, and both the House and Senate President Don Gaetz approve.
Meeting with reporters afterward, Weatherford said the fact that Florida's tuition is so low compared to other states means there must be movement on that front.
"We believe six percent is a responsible number, certainly not a double-digit number," he said. "But we're willing to negotiate to find out what the Senate and the governor would like to do."
Reminded that Gov. Rick Scott adamantly opposes tuition increases, Weatherford joked. "Is that right? He's not for tuition increases?"
He also brushed off concerns by the Florida Education Association that proposed changes to the state retirement system would jeopardize the retirement of teachers and other education professionals.
The House last week passed its retirement system bill (HB 7011), one of Weatherford's top priorities. The bill would close off the traditional "defined benefit" pension system to new employees, requiring them to enroll in a 401(k)-type "defined contribution" plan.
Earlier Thursday, FEA vice president Joanne McCall said that teachers tend to be women and women live longer and need retirement benefits longer.
"That makes the protections of the defined benefit plan more valuable than any of the proposals being bandied about in the Legislature," she said.
Weatherford was dismissive. "Unions are going to use scare tactics. I'm not surprised that they're using them here," he said. "But 85 to 90 percent of the companies in this country have transferred from defined benefit to defined contribution. This is happening. It's not something I came up with. The idea of a defined benefit plan, long-term, doesn't work."
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