TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Seeking changes in the wake of a high-profile financial scandal at the University of Central Florida, the House is expected Tuesday to start moving forward with a plan that would revamp spending rules for the higher education system, including on construction projects.
The proposal, backed by House Speaker Jose Oliva, would broaden how universities and colleges can spend unused state dollars, known as “carry forward funds,” to pay for repairs and remodeling of existing state-funded construction projects. With additional spending flexibility, the proposal would require the institutions to publicly determine their spending priorities.
The bill (PCB HEA 19-01), which will be heard Tuesday by the House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee, would also prohibit colleges and universities from transferring state money to other funds within the institutions without prior approval from the Legislature.
The proposed changes come after the House Public Integrity & Ethics Committee wrapped up an investigation into the University of Central Florida that found $85 million in improper transfers were made by the university for building projects. The committee last week recommended to put in place a better system of checks and balances and improved training for people involved in the university’s budgeting process.
A couple of days after those recommendations were made, Higher Education Appropriations Chairman Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, filed the bill to overhaul a portion of the higher-education system’s budget laws.
This proposal is in line with what Oliva vowed to prioritize on the opening day of the legislative session: passing higher education reform. Among the reforms he wants is requiring institutions to do space-utilization studies to justify the need of new buildings, which would add another step in how institutions can ask the Legislature to fund construction projects.
“Every building will require a down-payment as well as an escrow account to ensure for its future maintenance,” Oliva said this month.
Under the House proposal, any new construction or remodeling project that has not received appropriations in previous years could only be considered as a priority project if the institution has set aside at least 25 percent of the total project's cost or has an interest-bearing account with at least 10 percent of the building's value for a period of no more than three years.
Under the bill, the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the university system, and the State Board of Education would be required to develop a “points-based prioritization method” to rank construction projects they want to recommend for state funding. That is something Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, has sought as well.
Also on Tuesday, the House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee will take up Fine’s overall budget recommendations for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Fine’s recommendation is an initial step as lawmakers prepare to draw up a final budget before the scheduled May 3 end of the legislative session.
News Service of Florida