The First Amendment Foundation wants Republican Gov. Rick Scott to now also veto a third part of the 2017-18 budget over concerns of a lack of transparency: a priority bill of Senate President Joe Negron's that includes sweeping reforms affecting Florida's 12 public universities and 28 state colleges.
The formal veto request from the non-profit foundation -- of which the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times are members -- comes after similar requests by the organization, which called on Scott to reject the main budget act (SB 2500) and a controversial $419 million K-12 schools bill (HB 7069).
The higher ed bill (SB 374), like the public schools legislation, was among a dozen or so budget-related policy bills that lawmakers negotiated and finalized behind closed doors in the final days of session.
One aspect, though, drew particular criticism: A previously undiscussed change to benchmarks that make the state's top-tier, research-focused universities eligible for millions of dollars in additional funding. Several lawmakers in the Tampa Bay area said they were blindsided when they learned the change would prevent the University of South Florida from reaching "pre-eminent" status -- and earn the bonus dollars -- as it had been on track to do.
In a letter to Scott, First Amendment Foundation president Barbara Petersen blasted the fact that SB 374 was "decided in secrecy and seemingly in direct violation of the right of access to legislative meetings."
"The secretive process precluded any opportunity for public oversight or input on major changes to Florida’s to (sic) post-secondary education policy," Petersen wrote. "We are extremely concerned that not only were university and higher education officials shut out, but also legislators from key committees were unaware of changes made to this critically important bill.
Read the foundation's full letter here.
After this post was published, Negron's office offered a statement to the Herald/Times in response to the foundation's criticism of the bill.
“Over the 18 months that we have been discussing elements of higher education reform, I am not aware of the First Amendment Foundation ever contacting me personally, any other Senator, or any member of the Senate professional staff to express any concern with this legislation whatsoever," Negron, R-Stuart, said in the statement. " As a result, today’s critique is completely ill-informed and inaccurate."
Negron said he has "been discussing many of the reforms contained in Senate Bill 374 since my designation in 2015" and that other ideas in the bill resulted from feedback he received while touring all state universities last year. He argued "every component of the bill was vetted by three Senate committees and amendments by senators were offered and incorporated at every step of the process."
"The only significant change to the legislation that occurred during the conference process was to delay the implementation of a four-year graduation metric for one year so that universities have extra time to plan," he said.
However, several lawmakers on the final day of session complained that they were not consulted and were actually left completely unaware of the change in graduation metrics that would cost USF millions of dollars -- that is, until those lawmakers received urgent calls from USF trustees and administrators the weekend before the Legislature voted on the budget package.
“I was flat embarrassed,” Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, said on the Senate floor on May 8. “We should never learn about the impact of what we did from the people we’re impacting.”
Scott on Wednesday received the main budget act (SB 2500), but none of the "conforming" bills -- such as SB 374 or HB 7069 -- have been officially sent to him yet.
Photo credit: Barbara Petersen is president of the First Amendment Foundation, a non-profit organization that advocates for open government and access to public records. Miami Herald file photo