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Strapped for cash to build, university presidents urge lawmakers for relief

Those energy efficient appliances and flat screen TVs bought in the last few years by Florida consumers are a real drag for state schools.

Energy consumption is one of the things that finances Florida’s gross receipts tax, which has paid $8.6 billion for school capital costs since 2004. The problem is that, while tax revenue dropped in the last few years mostly because of the economy, much of it won’t ever come back because of the more efficient way we use electricity.

During Thursday’s House Appropriations Committee meeting, Chairman Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, devoted 90 minutes to what state educators are calling a growing problem.

“The crisis is here,” said Judy Bense, president of the University of West Florida. “The money won’t come back in a long time. We have to move on and find a new way to do things.”

The drop in tax collections forced the state last year to add $250 million to the trust fund that the tax normally finances, the Public Education Capital Outlay, or PECO. This hampers colleges and universities, who can’t float bonds to finance new projects or rehap existing buildings.

On behalf of the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state’s university system, Bense urged lawmakers to consider expand funding (universities say they need $3 billion for capital by 2025) from sources like an increase in student user fees; give universities more power to issue bonds; provide $50 million in next year’s budget for deferred maintenance; and encourage partnerships with private companies and groups to finance projects.

“We are solvent, we pay our bills,” said Bense, referring to the state’s university presidents. “If I had to trust anybody, I’d trust that group with my lunch money.”

McKeel told committee members that this issue was going to be a priority with him. Afterward, he told reporters that the Board of Governors request was reasonable. “We have a great relationship with the presidents,” McKeel said. “The points they made are valid.”

The legislative session begins in March.