As USF scrambles for lost millions, Tampa Bay lawmakers get flak

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Tampa Bay legislators were being pounded with criticism from local leaders and the University of South Florida community Monday as they returned to the Capitol for a one-day overtime session.

“Phone calls, texts, emails, you name it,”said Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, most of whose district is in Hillsborough County. “It’s a real hornet’s nest.”

The Legislature is poised to pass and send to Gov. Rick Scott a bill that will delay USF’s plan to become the state’s third preeminent state university — and get the tens of millions of dollars that go with it.

The bill (SB 374) would for the first time mandate a student graduation rate of 60 percent of students in four years as one of 12 benchmarks for preeminent status.

UF and Florida State already exceed that mark. But USF’s current four-year graduation rate of 54 percent is below.

“You can’t change the rules in the middle of the game,” said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn as he began a round of calls to Tallahassee. “It’s just so unfair. USF had done everything they had been asked to do. To change the rules” in the final hours of the session with no public discussion “to me just smells,” he said.

The new standard appeared in public for the first time last Friday afternoon, inside a 292-page higher education policy bill attached to the new state budget.

USF accused lawmakers of “shifting the goal posts” at the last minute, noting that the original version of the bill would have imposed a 50 percent graduation rate in four years, which USF already meets.

As a conforming bill, it can’t be amended. But Scott can veto it.

Republicans in the Tampa Bay delegation face two options: vote for the bill and face hometown criticism or vote against it and risk alienating Senate leadership.

The standard was championed by Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and supported by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes.

It was not discussed in detail at a public meeting, and when Negron asked for public testimony, no one came forward.

Speculation was rampant among lawmakers and USF faithful that Florida State pushed for the higher graduation standard to avoid having to split $48 million of preeminence money three ways instead of dividing it with UF.

FSU President John Thrasher, a former senator and House speaker with ready access to key lawmakers, said neither he nor his lobbyists had anything to do with the change.

“Zero motivation,” Thrasher said. “No one would have been instructed to make any changes like that. The answer to that is no … That’s Joe Negron’s call and the speaker’s.”

USF and its allies also expressed bewilderment that the Legislature would do anything to complicate the school’s pursuit of excellence in a year when Tampa Bay boasts both a House speaker and the Senate’s lead budget-writer, Jack Latvala of Clearwater.

It’s a bedrock principle in Tallahassee that lawmakers zealously safeguard their local institutions, especially state colleges and universities.

Corcoran, whose older brother Michael is a lobbyist for the USF Foundation, agreed to the 60 percent threshhold and later supported it at a news conference with Negron. Latvala has not spoken publicly about the change and did not attend the meeting where the change first surfaced.

Negron wrote an opinion column for the Tampa Bay Times in which he criticized USF for not getting its facts straight.

“The goal posts were not moved,” Negron wrote. “Proposed legislation is frequently revised and amended during session, and it was imprudent for any observer to count their chickens before they hatched. USF simply did not hit the current standard.”

Rep. Sean Shaw, D-Tampa, said he would vote against the bill for its handling of USF.

“That’s a travesty,” Shaw said. “But it’s not surprising that something happens at the last minute that changes policy and effects tens of millions of dollars and nobody knows about until a 292-page bill comes out. The transparency we were promised at the beginning of the session surely hasn’t manifested itself here.”

Herald/Times staff writer Michael Auslen and Tampa Bay Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report.

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