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Supreme Court vs. Legislators, again: Tuition case goes to highest court

Fresh from smacking down the state Senate redistricting maps as unconstitutional, the Florida Supreme Court has decided to take up another lawsuit targeting Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island.

This time, the court will rule over whether the state lawmakers—and not universities—have the power to set tuition rates. Currently, the Legislature sets tuition increases, with universities held to a 15-percent cap.

A group, led by former Gov. Bob Graham, former Florida State University President Talbot "Sandy" D’Alemberte and other university officials, sued the Legislature in 2007, stating that universities have tuition-setting rights, under the Constitution.

The First District Court of Appeals sided with lawmakers in a December decision, stating that the Legislature had “power of the purse” and authority to set tuition rates for the state’s 11 universities.

Attorneys for the Legislature urged the Supreme Court not to take up the case. 

“The First District correctly applied long-established precedent from this Court,” state attorneys wrote. “Thus, while jurisdictional grounds exist, this Court should not exercise its discretion to review this case.”

The Supreme Court decided to take it on.

Meanwhile, the Legislature offered an olive branch to universities this year, providing certain schools more power to hike tuition by more than the current 15-percent cap. Under a bill passed this session, the University of Florida and FSU would be able to raise tuition to “market rates” if they met certain benchmarks.

It’s not clear whether or not Gov. Rick Scott will sign the bill into law. Scott has said he is opposed to tuition increases.

The Florida Legislature is currently swimming in litigation, and recently lost a circuit court case over its decision to make state employees contribute three percent of their salaries to their retirement. Scott is also being sued for an executive order requiring some agencies to begin random drug tests for their employees. Additionally, the Legislature passed several laws this year that are Constitutionally-questionable and could face lawsuits in the future: The so-called “prayer in school” bill, a state-employee drug-testing program and a Medicaid billing law that could cost counties millions.

In the tuition case, oral arguments are expected to start this summer, with written briefs from both parties due next month.