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Lawsuit Challenging Florida Legislature’s Tuition Authority Moves Forward

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A group including former Gov. and ex-U.S. Sen. Bob Graham will continue a lawsuit challenging the Legislature’s authority to set tuition at state universities, although one of its partners has withdrawn.

The Board of Governors, which oversees the 11 universities, had joined the group’s lawsuit three years ago but last month reached a settlement with the Legislature to share authority over tuition and some other governance matters with lawmakers.

The suit, filed in Tallahassee, seeks a Circuit Court order declaring the board has sole authority over those functions including tuition. It is likely to work its way up to the Florida Supreme Court regardless of how the Circuit Court rules.

“It’s still on as far as we’re concerned,” said the group’s lawyer, Robin Gibson.

A trial is set for July, but Gibson and the Legislature last week each filed motions for summary judgment.

Meanwhile, the House on Friday unanimously passed a bill (HB 7237) making changes in state law needed to carry out the Legislature’s end of its bargain with the board that lets lawmakers keep their leading role in setting tuition. The Senate is expected vote on the measure before the legislative session ends Friday.

Graham helped lead a citizen initiative that amended the Florida Constitution to create the board in 2002. The intent was to curtail political interference with the universities.

“We feel that it’s pretty convincing that what the people did was transfer the full powers of governance to the Board of Governors,” Gibson said.

The amendment does not specifically mention tuition but says “the board shall operate, regulate, control and be fully responsible for the management of the whole university system.”

The Legislature contends the amendment does nothing to block its constitutional authority over spending, which lawmakers say includes tuition as part of its revenue-raising powers such as taxation.

Gibson disagrees, arguing that tuition falls outside the Legislature’s revenue authority because it is a voluntary payment for contractual services. Florida courts have never handled the tuition issue, but Gibson noted those in other states with similar constitution university boards have agreed with his argument.

Voters adopted the amendment after the Legislature and then-Gov. Jeb Bush abolished the panel’s predecessor agency, the Board of Regents, which had been established by law rather than through the constitution. The regents had angered many lawmakers by opposing their efforts to create new law and medical schools on grounds they were unnecessary and wasteful.

Legislators’ aversion to tuition increases has made Florida one of the nation’s top bargains in higher education but also has left the universities starved for cash needed to attract top faculty and compete with schools in other states.

Prodded by business interests worried about the quality of Florida’s universities, lawmakers last year passed a law letting each school raise tuition up to 15 percent a year with board approval. That figure includes any statewide increase the Legislature approves. The increases can continue until a school’s tuition reaches the national average.

The settlement with the board retains that procedure.

Last year, lawmakers approved an 8-percent statewide increase, and all 11 schools received board approval to reach the maximum by adding another 7 percent. This year lawmakers again have agreed to an 8-percent statewide increase.

Besides Graham, a Democrat, the plaintiffs include former Republican U.S. Rep. Lou Frey, former Regent Joan Ruffier, and Florida State University President Emeritus Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, a former American Bar Association president and ex-state lawmaker who is now a law professor at the school. 

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