Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

University Plan for Funding Has Slow Approach; Boosters Scale Back Massive Spending Plan; Legislators Remain Skeptical

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

University Plan for Funding Has Slow Approach; Boosters Scale Back Massive Spending Plan; Legislators Remain Skeptical

Article excerpt

Byline: MATT COLEMAN

They might have been a little too optimistic.

That's what boosters of the New Florida Initiative, a program unveiled last month by the state Board of Governors, said last week after reviewing the first round of budget proposals from Senate and House committees. They've started reining in their funding requests so that they're asking for less money over a longer period of time.

The initiative, designed to reinvigorate higher education, is the brainchild of the State University System and calls for yearly $350 million injections until 2015, totaling $1.75 billion.

The main goal is to transform Florida into an academic powerhouse with robust research and graduate offerings that could provide financial alternatives to declining tent-pole industries, such as tourism and agriculture.

Much of the money is targeted at STEM degrees - science, technology, engineering and math - that produce more lucrative patents.

The plan looked like it was off to a rousing start when Gov. Charlie Crist earmarked $100 million for the initiative in his proposed higher education budget from January.

But University of North Florida President John Delaney, who served as interim chancellor of the university system when the initiative was being developed, said the $350 million mark will be tough to reach next year given the current economic instability.

The House's proposed higher education budget sits at about $6.6 billion - $100 million less than last year. And even though the Senate's proposal is about $300 million more than last year's, there was no funding built in for the New Florida Initiative.

"I don't think our previous goal is in reach, but the $100 million Charlie proposed is still in play," Delaney said.

He said he had to change his stance just days after he hailed the $350 million, five-year plan as the program's preferred method of funding during a UNF luncheon.

He told The Florida Times-Union Wednesday that New Florida proponents have begun to shift their sights to a more gradual approach - smaller funding boosts spread out over the course of the next nine or 10 years. That's more in line with Crist's $100 million commitment.

"We're happy enough not getting our arms cut off," Delaney said. "We're working with the Legislature, and I think we can make it happen. It'll be small increments at first, but maybe by the second year we can kick it off with more money."

He said State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan is also leaning toward the gradual rollout. Brogan was meeting with the legislators last week and was unavailable for comment, a Board of Governors spokesman said.

But Rep. Bill Proctor, R-St. Augustine, who chairs the House higher education committee, remains skeptical.

The budget is stretched to its limit, he said, and the only way to find more higher education money is to carve it out of base funding - potentially crippling another area of the state's economy. …

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