NAPLES — U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson isn’t too fond of the sequester.
The Florida Democrat made two stops in Southwest Florida on Wednesday, discussing the effect higher education has on the continued growth of the area’s economy.
He told university leaders they can do something about it. Many of Southwest Florida’s university presidents were panelists at Wednesday’s informal luncheon meeting at the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce in Naples.
“You don’t need to convince me because I’m always for you — the higher funding for Pell grants — but, you can go and talk to the members of Congress that are voting for the sequester,” he said.
He stressed there are others supporting the so-called sequestration, or the automatic federal spending cuts that kicked in this year after Congress failed to reach a deal to reduce the national deficit.
“The idea of sequester is an idiot idea,” Nelson said.
He said he voted for it because the government was going into default.
More than 20 business leaders and university presidents from across Southwest Florida attended “Higher Education and Business: A Conversation with Florida Senator Bill Nelson,” hosted by the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce and Ave Maria University.
Issues discussed included money for Pell grants, which help students in need pay for college, to the tax code and immigration reform.
Jim Towey, Ave Maria University president, wanted Nelson to take the university’s idea of creating a religious-affiliation exemption from a federal government mandate that could require health plans for employees and students at Catholic colleges and universities to provide free contraceptive services.
“There are many people that aren’t happy with the regulations the way they were drafted,” Towey said.
Towey said he is concerned that if the draft isn’t changed, religious organizations would have to choose between providing health insurance or following their religious belief. Under Ave Maria University’s current health policy, contraceptives aren’t covered.
Earlier this year, Ave Maria University was represented by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Becket Fund for Religious Liberty that filed a lawsuit in federal court. A Fort Myers district court judge earlier this year dismissed the suit, in which the Cathlolic-identified Collier County school fought the requirement implemented by the government in early 2012 that employers cover the cost of birth control methods for employees.
Nelson questioned whether everyone’s rights would be protected, even those nonreligious employees who wanted to get birth control.
About 15 percent of students at Ave Maria aren’t Catholic, Towey said.
When asked about the fate of the Pell Grant Program, Nelson said it could be threatened and diminished if the ideas of a sequester continue.
Towey was encouraged to hear Nelson share with the group that he believes charitable deductions will be protected.
Florida Gulf Coast University President Wilson Bradshaw stressed the importance of extending modest interest rates for tuition and working collectively as local university agencies.
“We need to do things that would educate more, not fewer here in the state of Florida,” he said.
Bradshaw also said that there is a need for more technical education.
On other issues, Nelson discussed the recent airport cuts forced by the sequester. He urged people to “get in the face” of members of Congress so they hear directly from the public.
Nelson’s Southwest Florida schedule Wednesday also included a planned Fort Myers stop for a groundbreaking of two new developments aimed at providing hundreds of new affordable housing units. The partnership involves the redevelopment of two apartment buildings on Sabal Palm Boulevard in Fort Myers.