In another thinly veiled shot at his chief rival in the November elections, Gov. Rick Scott will use his State of the State address on Tuesday to call for a repeal of a 2009 law allowing universities to increase tuition up to 15 percent a year.
Scott, who is running for re-election, will use the annual speech to frame his bid for a second term and to contrast himself with former Gov. Charlie Crist, a onetime Republican now running as a Democrat for his old job. Scott has already said the state should roll back motor-vehicle registration fee increases that Crist signed in 2009 to help fill a budget gap.
The governor will also call for the Legislature to do away with automatic increases in tuition that are designed to account for inflation in years when lawmakers don't raise tuition rates. Scott pressured universities not to use that part of the law to boost tuition last year, after vetoing a tuition hike lawmakers had approved as part of the state budget.
"And, this year, with your help, we want to get rid of the 15 percent annual increase and inflationary increase on tuition," Scott is scheduled to say, according to excerpts released by his office Monday. "Undoing these 2007 and 2009 laws is another way we can keep higher education affordable and accessible."
Over the last two years, Scott has made holding down tuition at state universities one of his priorities, sometimes to the irritation of school presidents.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, have already proposed lowering the 15 percent cap on "differential tuition" to 6 percent, in part to contain the growing cost of the state's prepaid tuition program. The Senate Education Committee has introduced a measure (SB 1148) that would lower the cap and repeal the inflation increase.
"It (the legislative proposal) is a step in the right direction, but the governor is focused on getting rid of the 15 percent annual increase so we can help our students obtain an affordable education," Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said in an email.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Weatherford didn't dismiss Scott's proposal outright but stood by the Legislature's idea. Lawmakers will start the 60-day legislative session Tuesday.
"Everything is up for conversation," he said. "I think 6 percent is a good number in the sense that it provides some autonomy for the institutions to be able to utilize the differential if they need it at some point, but it's also a low enough number to where it makes our prepaid contract affordable."
Chancellor Marshall Criser, who took over as head of the State University System in January, has so far avoided commenting specifically on tuition in Florida. But he has tried to couch the issue in a broader conversation about funding for the 12 schools, including the system's proposal to tie university budgets to performance.
"The chancellor is aware of the governor's position on tuition and believes that tuition is only one part of the discussion," said Brittany Davis, a spokeswoman for Criser. "The larger question is how we can demonstrate to our elected leaders the value of investing in our university system. As we demonstrate the value the system creates, and move into an era of performance funding, we expect that we will be able to strike the right balance on tuition for our students and their families."
Other excerpts from Scott's office largely followed comments he has already made about his agenda and his budget for the coming legislative session. Scott will try to tie his proposed $500 million reduction in taxes and fees, and his call for further reducing the state's debt, back to his campaign promise to create 700,000 jobs in seven years.
"If we do all this, we can make Florida not just the Land of 700,000 New Jobs," Scott said. "We will make Florida the Land of Opportunity."
But Democrats have already begun pushing back on that bullet point, arguing that there is less to Scott's accomplishments than he makes it seem.
"A majority of the jobs that the governor's talked about and that will be touted are low-paying jobs, a lot of times with few benefits," said Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, at a press conference Monday.