Graham, Haridopolos, House and Senate Leadership Respond to Supreme Court Tuition Ruling

By: Eric Giunta | Posted: February 1, 2013 3:55 AM
Bob Graham and Mike Haridopolos

Former Florida Gov. Bob Graham, left, former Senate President Mike Haridopolos, right

Bob Graham, primary plaintiff in Thursday's landmark tuition policy-setting ruling, expressed disappointment that the Florida Supreme Court didn't see that "our constitutional amendment was drawn from other states."

As news of the high court's decision reverberated through the state, the former Florida governor and U.S. senator was one of several parties involved in the litigation who shared their reactions with Sunshine State News.

In the case that first was litigated in 2007, the high court decided that the Legislature, not the Board of Governors, has the right to set the tuition policy of state colleges and universities.

“I’m disappointed; the language we used in our constitutional amendment was drawn from other states which also have a constitutional board overseeing the state university system, and which have the power to set tuition placed in that board,” said Graham in a telephone interview. “I’m disappointed that the Supreme Court came to a different conclusion, but they also declared that the amendment does place the responsibility for the management of the state university system with the Board of Governors.

“And I hope that will mean that some of the political decisions that have been made in recent years will no longer be tolerated.”

In a unanimous decision whose opinion was authored by Justice Barbara Pariente, the high court determined that neither the language of the contested constitutional provision, nor the ballot title and summary that were placed before voters in 2002, signaled an intention to assign the Board of Governors (BOG) the responsibility to set tuition prices or to determine how those dollars are spent.

However, the court also said the Legislature does not have “authority ... without limits” to manage the state university system, leaving the door open to future legal challenges if the BOG ever felt the Legislature was intruding on the Board’s constitutional authority to manage the state’s institutions of higher learning.

“Bob Graham’s a good friend, and it was tough being in a situation like this, but I’m really pleased to see that the court overwhelmingly sided with our position,” former state Senate president Mike Haridopolos, one of the suit’s named defendants, tells Sunshine State News. “The Constitution has been clear for a while that it is the Legislature that sets these types of policies.”

Bruce Hauptli, professor of philosophy at Florida International University and another one of the eight plaintiffs, begged to differ.

“I am extremely disappointed,” he tells the News. “Ever since the amendment passed that established the Board of Governors, the Legislature has passed, and continues to pass, numerous bits of legislation taking on governing authority of the university system: creating new universities, changing the curriculum, and so on. What led to this constitutional amendment was the intrusion of the Legislature into the governance of the universities, and that has not stopped.”

Hauptli says voters approved the 2002 measure establishing the BOG precisely to keep politics out of higher education, but the Legislature has continued to set rules and regulations that are not academically prudent. As examples, he names the establishment of the College-Level Academic Skills Test (CLAST), the Gordon Rule writing requirement, and a 2006 law that forbids colleges and universities from sending researchers to Cuba and other “terrorist states.”

“It’s not the Legislature, which is a body of individuals who have little understanding of what university curriculum needs are, that should be taking the lead on these things,” Hauptli insists.

Florida’s universities are among the least expensive in the nation. The average annual tuition at a state college or university is $6,143 – the 45th lowest state average in the country, while the national public tuition average is $8,655. Hauptli suggests that, while keeping tuition low might be politically popular, the quality of state education is suffering as a result.

“As the state funding declines, the only option is either to cut the educational experience for the students, which has already been cut to the bone, or tuition has to go up. One way or the other,” he says. “There’s no more blood in the turnip.”

For his part, Haridopolos says the very principles of the American democratic tradition are compromised if tuition rates and expenditures are determined by a non-elected body.

“It’s one of the foundations of our nation: taxation with representation,” he explains. “Three-quarters of the true cost of the university is picked up by the taxpayer, only about 25 percent is paid for by the student. Most of the true cost of education is paid by the taxpayer through taxes. When you take that power away from the people, you lose the fabric of what makes this country great.”

Graham tells the News he has no plans to launch an effort to further amend the Constitution to give the Board of Governors the authority he wants it to have.

“This is a narrow issue; it would probably have a cost of an excess of $2 million to get the petition to put this on the ballot and then the campaign to try to pass it,” he says. “I just don’t think there’s going to be sufficient support to overcome those hurdles.”

The leaders of both chambers of the Legislature released statements to Sunshine State News, expressing their satisfaction with the court’s decision.

“As the branch of government closest and most accountable to the people of Florida, the Constitution contemplates that the Legislature – and only the Legislature, through its appropriations powers – should have the power to set tuition and fees for Florida’s public university students and families,” said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. “I am grateful to [former Senate] President [Ken] Pruitt, [former] President [Jeff] Atwater, and [former] President Haridopolos for standing tall in their defense of the Legislature’s authority to appropriate the people's money, including the budgets of state universities.”

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, was more cautious: "We are reviewing the case, but if the initial summary is correct, this is a huge victory for the Legislature and for Florida and we are happy with it. Tuition will be set by those who are elected and accountable to Floridians.”

Dean Colson, chairman of the Board of Governors, issued his own diplomatic response to the ruling.

“The Board of Governors enjoys a very positive and productive relationship with members of the Legislature and the governor because we recognize that they are our partners in our efforts to create a world class university system,” he said in his statement. “We cannot build a great system without the support of the governor, the speaker, and the president, and we are fortunate today to have their support.”

Reach Eric Giunta at egiunta@sunshinestatenews.com or at (954) 235-9116. 

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