TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (NEWS SERVICE FLORIDA) - In the last hours of the legislative session, Florida lawmakers on Friday unanimously passed a “highly negotiated” higher education package that changes how public universities and colleges will fund construction projects --- one of House Speaker Jose Oliva’s top priorities.
The legislation was crafted partly in response to a financial scandal at the University of Central Florida, where House investigators this year found employees misused tens of millions of state dollars for a construction project.
The bill, which now heads to Gov. Ron DeSantis, will restructure how universities and colleges pay for the maintenance and construction of buildings, including adding a requirement that institutions set aside money in preparation for future maintenance costs.
“At the beginning of our session, we were marred by a scandal in our state university system, and under these parameters that scandal would be avoided in the future,” Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, said.
The House and Senate also agreed to mandate more training for members of each university board of trustees. The training requirements would include lessons on how to have better oversight of construction projects and establishing “accountability mechanisms for the institution’s president and other administrative officers.”
Lawmakers also voted to require the State Board of Education and the university system’s Board of Governors to develop a prioritized list of construction projects that have been previously funded but are not yet completed. This list would then be used by the Legislature when it considers the Public Education Capital Outlay funding program, better known as PECO.
The bill (SB 190) passed on the last full day of the annual legislative session. Lawmakers will return to the Capitol on Saturday to pass a budget but will not take up other issues.
While the higher-education changes were a priority for the House, the legislation remained in question until the final hours.
Toward the end of session, the proposal foundered in the Senate, which refused to take up a number of provisions sought by the House.
One of those provisions was an “intellectual diversity” survey, which would have tested the ideological viewpoints of faculty and students. The survey, Rodriguez argued, would ensure institutions have a balance of opinions.
But Sen. Ron Bradley, R-Fleming Island, took offense at the proposal and applauded the Senate for keeping the survey out of the bill.
“Our history is replete with these ideas … and every time our country has gone down that road, it has ended poorly,” Bradley said. “That is a dangerous road to go down on.”
Bradley warned senators that the survey would “keep coming up again” during future legislative session and urged the Senate to keep fighting against it.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.