Former Gov. Bob Graham and others are suing to have the courts declare that tuition at Florida’s 11 public universities should be set by the state Board of Governors rather than the Legislature.
The lawsuit filed Friday follows an effort this year by the state’s universities to raise tuition by 5 percent, which lawmakers approved but Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed. Crist then signed a separate bill that will allow the state’s largest universities to raise tuition incrementally over several years, but keeps student costs the same at smaller schools.
Graham, former Congressman Lou Frey and former Florida State University president Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte and others allege that when the voters created the Board of Governors in 2002 and gave it broad power over the universities, that included the power to set tuition.
A state law that gives the Legislature the ability to set tuition is therefore unconstitutional, the lawsuit argues.
Several university officials have complained that tuition in Florida is well below that of universities in other states and that they are falling behind in their effort to offer comparable educational opportunities.
In the suit, the plaintiffs say that tuition should be set by the board because the governor and Legislature may not be able to raise such fees because it is unpopular.
The governor appoints 14 of the 17 members on the Board of Governors. The other positions are filled by the commissioner of education, chair of the Advisory Council of Faculty Senates and president of the Florida Student Association.
“Whether Florida should have such a board is no longer the subject of debate,” the lawsuit says. “In 2002, by a vote of more than 60 percent, the voters adopted Amendment 11,” which created the Board of Governors and gave it authority to run the state’s universities.
“We believe it clearly was the intent of the voters that the Board of Governors be given the responsibility for the basic operating of the university system, including setting student tuition,” Graham said in an interview Friday. “The Legislature (would) continue to have the responsibility for determining the level of taxpayer contribution.”
The lawsuit, filed in Circuit Court in Tallahassee, names as defendants Senate President Ken Pruitt and House Speaker Marco Rubio in their roles as leaders of the Legislature.
Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, rejected the notion of taking tuition out of the Legislature’s hands.
“I don’t think voters were trying to turn the Board of Governors into the fourth branch of government,” Pruitt said. “This lawsuit is nothing more than an attempt to get unbridled tuition increases. God help our students if they win.”
Pruitt added that students with average grades those who aren’t eligible for merit-based Bright Futures scholarships, would be priced out of a college education if tuition goes too high.
Graham said he agreed that higher tuition could be a hardship for some students, but said the answer was to make more need-based aid available.
Jill Chamberlin, a spokeswoman for Rubio, said House lawyers were only beginning to review the lawsuit and Rubio wouldn’t have a comment. A spokeswoman for Crist, who wasn’t named as a defendant in the suit, also said officials in the governor’s office were reviewing it, but declined to comment.
The bill Crist signed last month will allow the University of Florida, Florida State University and the University of South Florida by up to 15 percent a year starting in 2008. He initially threatened to veto that measure as well but said he changed his mind after meeting with the state’s university presidents.
Graham said Florida’s universities are losing their ability to compete with universities in other states. As an example, he cited UF’s faculty-student ratio of 22-1 as compared with the 14-1 ratio at the University of North Carolina.
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