Court hears argument on tuition power

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Supporters of giving the Florida Board of Governors more power to raise tuition and fees, and essentially taking that authority away from the Legislature, faced tough questioning Thursday from the Florida Supreme Court, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

A lawyer for a group of plaintiffs led by former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who also served as governor, argued that the 2002 constitutional amendment establishing the board implicitly gave it the authority to set tuition and fees, even if the new provision doesn’t spell that power out.

“All of the Legislature’s authority goes over based on the constitutional amendment, unless there is a constitutional exception,” said Robin Gibson, who represented Graham.

But a handful of justices on the seven-member court seemed skeptical of Gibson’s argument, noting that the constitution specifically gives power to raise and appropriate money to the Legislature. The argument in effect deals with whether that authority includes the right to set the tuition rate.

“The amendment specifically reserves the Legislature’s appropriation power,” said Justice Charles Canady.

The Legislature has granted the board more power in recent years, most notably through the state’s “differential tuition” law, which allows increases of up to 15 percent, but with a limit on how that money can be used.

Gibson told justices that the 2002 amendment was never meant to be a laundry list of the powers that would be granted to the new body.

“Think of the thousand things that the governing boards of the universities do,” he said.

Supporters also argue that similar boards in other states have long had the authority to set tuition.

“I think using the language that has stood the test of time … is the appropriate, preferred way to deal with a constitutional amendment,” Graham said after the oral arguments.

Opponents of the move argue that the decade-old amendment wasn’t meant to grant the new board, which replaced the Florida Board of Regents, the sweeping power sought by the case, known as Graham v. Haridopolos. And Daniel Brown, representing legislative leaders, said Gibson’s efforts to point to the authority given similar entities in other states weren’t valid.

“If they wanted to use the Michigan and California model, they should have used the Michigan and California language,” he said.

Justice Barbara Pariente, who often votes with the court’s left-of-center majority, said she was struggling with Gibson’s arguments. But other members of the court also challenged Brown. Justice R. Fred Lewis said allowing the Legislature to use its appropriations power to force the universities to set a certain level of tuition and fees could also allow lawmakers to use that authority to meddle in the day-to-day affairs of the State University System.

“How far does this go?” he asked.

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Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.