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Lynn grilled on university system budget cuts, 12th university

Sen. Evelyn Lynn, chair of the Senate's higher education appropriations committee, got an earful on the Senate floor Thursday after rolling out her budget recommendations that cut $400 million from the state university system.

Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, echoing what's been said repeatedly by Senate budget chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, justified the cut by pointing to universities' reserve funds. 

Sen. Jeremy Ring questioned the wisdom of that, telling Lynn that he's heard from university presidents who say those reserve funds are internally committed to various university needs. 

"Taking this away," Ring said, "They're going to have to cut programs."

Lynn disputed that, saying she hadn't heard that from any presidents.

Still, Ring, D-Margate, continued, are Florida's universities not intended to be economic drivers? Is it really a good idea to cut their budgets when state leaders are looking to them to create jobs and innovation? 

"I agree with you," Lynn said. "They are the economic engine. It is not good to have to cut universities, but it's also not good to have to cut health and human services... Knowing the presidents and how competent they are, I do not anticipate there will be any endangerment of the opportunities or the quality of programs offered."

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, asked Lynn for more clarity on how the cuts across the system were dispersed, hinting at the uproar that's come out of the University of South Florida in the past week. USF saw its $78 million cut, the largest among the universities, as unfair and vindictive -- as it comes at the same time as a push to split USF's Polytechnic campus in Lakeland off into the state's 12th university.

Lynn insisted that the cuts were fair, but she said USF's issue would be taken up later with some amendments. She was referring to amendmentsfiled by Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa, and a couple substitute amendments filed late last night by Lynn, Norman and Alexander, that signal a truce in the USF fight is coming.

The basic issue of whether USF Poly should split off right away is the subject of a conforming bill, slipped into the state budget a couple weeks ago, that is expected to come up later today. Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville, touched on the controversy surrounding that issue.

"Is there any money in the budget to create a 12th university?"Oelrich said. "And if so, how much money?"

No, Lynn answered.

"So the budget you are presenting has no money set aside to create a 12th university?" Oelrich asked again.

No, she said.

It's true that the budget does not have dollars flagged to implement USF Poly's proposed split. But what Lynn didn't say is that under the conforming bill, USF would have to transfer all the money, assets and property now belonging to USF Poly over to the new Florida Polytechnic University.

The Senate hopes to vote on its budget by the end of the day.