Gov. Scott, Fla. House speaker clash over tuition

Fla. House speaker defends 6 percent tuition hike even though Gov. Scott opposes it

Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- Florida Gov. Rick Scott has made his opposition to tuition hikes for college students well-known in the last several months. He has repeatedly said that he worries that the cost of a college education is getting too high in the Sunshine State.

"This is a tax, it's a tax on students, it's a tax on families," Scott told reporters earlier this week.

But Scott's opposition has done little to dissuade the Florida House from proposing a 6-percent tuition hike.

House Speaker Will Weatherford on Thursday strongly defended the move, which would generate an estimated $37 million for the state's 12 public universities.

"Our students and our parents are spending as much money on their cellphones a year as they are paying for tuition," Weatherford said.

Weatherford, who made his remarks before the Florida Board of Governors, also said that the state's overall tuition rate for university students remains among the lowest in the country. The board is the appointed panel that oversees the university system.

Florida charges undergraduate students an average in-state rate of $6,232 a year — which ranks about 41st in the nation, according to data compiled by the State University System of Florida.

"We think to just take tuition off the table and ignore the fact that we are ranked so low...is not right," Weatherford said.

The difference over tuition is yet another flash point in a building tug-of-war between Weatherford and Scott. The Republican governor last week was critical of a campaign finance bill pushed by the speaker. Weatherford, meanwhile, has questioned Scott's desire to give teachers a $2,500 pay raise.

The Wesley Chapel Republican responded sarcastically when asked about Scott's opposition to tuition hikes.

"Is that right? He's not for tuition increases?" he said.

The Florida Senate has not recommended any tuition increases in its proposed budget. Weatherford said the House was not fixated on a 6 percent amount and said the final figure was "negotiable." The House and Senate have until early May to pass a new state budget and send it to Scott.

Florida has a complicated system for setting tuition rates. The Legislature can order across-the-board tuition increases and the Board of Governors can approve increases requested by individual universities. State law limits the increases to a combined 15 percent annually.

Last year Scott vetoed a bill that would have permitted the state's top two research schools, the University of Florida and Florida State University, to exceed that current cap.

As legislators have cut state spending in recent years, the universities have responded by raising tuition. Last year lawmakers cut university budgets by $300 million.

University presidents pledged last December that they would not seek a tuition increase this year if legislators restored the 2012 cut and agreed to spend $118 million more in state money on the 12 schools.

University of Florida Bernie Machen said that the initial budget proposals rolled out by the House and Senate would allow the schools to keep that promise. The House and Senate budgets would increase state dollars to universities between $143 million and $198 million. The budgets even include extra money for both UF and FSU.

"If that holds, we're fine," Machen said.

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