Senate moves toward House on higher education projects

By Ana Ceballos, The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - At the start of this year’s legislative session, the House prioritized an overhaul of higher-education spending rules after a financial scandal at the University of Central Florida. The Senate, however, was on the fence about making changes.

“What happened at UCF is not as if they were using these funds to send (officials) to Tahiti or something,” Sen. Kelli Stargel, the Senate’s education budget chief, told The News Service of Florida in March.

“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,” she added.

Fast-forward to Thursday, and one of Stargel’s bills (SB 190) was rewritten to include some of the higher-education changes proposed by the House, which particularly wants to revamp spending rules that pertain to construction projects.

In their proposals, the House and Senate agree that the state university system’s Board of Governors and the State Board of Education should be required to develop a “points-based prioritization” method to rank construction projects the boards want to recommend for state funding.

The House and Senate also agree that there should be a mandate to train state university trustees about oversight of building projects and agree that a standard should be used to justify space needs for new construction.

The Legislature is considering the changes after House investigators found that UCF improperly used $85 million in taxpayer money for construction work. Since then, the University of South Florida and the University of Florida have also been scrutinized for potential misuse of state dollars for building projects.

The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday unanimously approved the changes to Stargel’s bill, though the House still takes a tougher stance on the spending rules. But a framework eyed by the House is now included by the Senate.

Under the House bill (HB 5501), any new construction or remodeling project that has not received state funds 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 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.

The Senate is proposing that state colleges have at least 15 percent of the total project cost available and universities have 10 percent of the total project cost, according to the amendment adopted Thursday.

The chambers are apart on overall funding for the higher-education system. The House’s $89.9 billion budget includes $138 million in cuts to the university system, in part because of the financial scandal at UCF. The Senate wants to fund the state university system at $5.1 billion with no cuts.

News Service of Florida