Identified as “special interest earmarks,” more than $17 million in construction funds to Southwest Florida’s higher education institutions fell victim to the governor’s veto pen Thursday.
Gov. Rick Scott announced a record $615 million in vetoes at a press conference in the Central Florida retirement community The Villages. In a press release, Scott indicated that the money he slashed from the budget should be redirected to K-12 education in the state.
“Special interests probably aren’t happy with the tough choices I made, but I am confident everyone can agree that funding for our children and students is more important than pleasing Tallahassee’s special interests,” Scott said in a prepared statement.
However, many of the cuts he announced had been destined for the institutions that educate Florida’s higher learners.
“For some reason, I don’t think colleges and universities are special interests, especially in this economy,” said State Rep. Trudi Williams, R-Fort Myers. “ Edison State College will tell you, their enrollment is up 35 percent because jobs are so scarce.”
Among the cuts was $9.5 million for Florida Gulf Coast University and $7.7 million for Edison State College, which joined nearly two dozen other universities and colleges that saw the promise of money from the Public Education Capital Outlay (PECO) fund dashed by the governor on Thursday.
In all, $164.6 million in PECO funds were cut from Florida public universities and colleges; that’s out of a total $516.3 million vetoed that would have come from various state trust funds.
However, because much of the money vetoed Thursday would have come from trust funds, it cannot be unilaterally re-directed back into public K-12 education. The bulk of education costs are related to personnel, but PECO funds, for example, can only be used for construction and equipment costs.
Scott had signalled last week that he was considering cutting some $100 million in projects to universities and colleges, and earlier this week, the FGCU and Edison projects landed on a list of “turkeys” distributed annually by Florida TaxWatch.
Lobbyists for both FGCU and Edison had worked with legislators over the last two months, and recent weeks, advocating for the funding.
“Obviously, in Southwest Florida, Florida Gulf Coast University and Edison are just an enormous economic generator for the entire region,” said Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples. “Those PECO funds for FGCU would really allow the university to continue to grow, but also respond to the growth they’ve already had.”
At FGCU, $4.5 million was set aside for a building to house the university’s health professions program.
Over the last few years, FGCU has received $23.5 million from the state for that partially-completed building. That’s enough money to finish construction, but without the remaining funds, FGCU President Wilson Bradshaw said the building will lack all of the things that go inside it.
“Without the $4.5 million, we won’t have furniture and we won’t have equipment,” Bradshaw said. “We will have to mothball it.
“The logic of investing $23.5 million in a building, and not providing the funds for furniture and equipment — the logic escapes me.”
The other $5 million to FGCU was the first installment needed for a $12.5 million renewable energy center affiliated with the nearby under-development research park dubbed the Innovation Hub. In 2010, that money was vetoed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist, and Bradshaw said the project will have to simply remain on hold another year.
Another $1.5 million for upkeep and maintenance projects at FGCU — patching roads and repairing aging cooling systems — remains in the budget.
The $7.7 million in funding cut from Edison’s coffers was intended for remodeling and renovation of 12 buildings on Edison’s Lee Campus, and three buildings on the Collier Campus.
“We are disappointed in the governor’s vetoes, but this is not completely unexpected,” said Teresa Morgenstern, a spokeswoman for Edison. “To us, these were very important projects that would have had a long-term effect on our students.”
Morgenstern said many of the renovations were targeted at buildings older than 30 years, and would have improved energy efficiency. She said the college realized $100,000 in energy savings in the last year alone because of similar projects.
“Essentially, this handcuffs our ability to address many needed projects,” Morgenstern said. “Also, the loss of these funds hampers our ability to respond to any building damage.”
That is a disconcerting prospect, Morgenstern said, with hurricane season around the corner.
“That’s so disappointing,” Williams said of the construction money cuts. “That is jobs on the ground. That is hiring engineers, architects, drywall hangers, plumbers, electricians. That volume of work for building those projects would have employed a lot of people.”
The bill signed by Scott on Thursday also affirmed the Legislature’s requirement that colleges and universities raise tuition 8 percent, with the ability for universities to raise tuition up to 15 percent. FGCU has indicated it plans to do that, with the approval of the state Board of Governors.
Connect with higher education reporter Leslie Williams Hale at naplesnews.com/staff/leslie_hale