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Weatherford and Gaetz in standoff -- but not just over in-state tuition


It’s not just subsidized higher education for undocumented students that is pitting Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford against Senate President Don Gaetz.

It’s also two separate line items buried deep in the dueling higher education budget proposals from the two chambers.

The Senate is proposing to spend $10 million for the University of West Florida’s Office of Economic Development and Engagement. Gaetz, R-Niceville, is requesting the money for the Pensacola-based university, which happens to be in his district.

“This is for the Industry Recruitment, Retention & Expansion Fund (IRREF) Grant Program, which is administered by the University of West Florida,” said Katie Betta, Gaetz’s spokeswoman, in an email. “Senator Gaetz was one of the authors (of the law), of which the Oil Spill Recovery Act was an important component. The Oil Spill Recovery Act allots $10 million per year for three years to eight Northwest Florida Counties for the purposes of research and development, commercialization of research, economic diversification and job creation.”

That may be so, but the Florida House won’t budge, and has refused to match the request. (How much of this is posturing? We'll see how far this goes, but consider that Judy Bense is the president of UWF. She's the aunt of Weatherford's wife, Courtney, the sister of his father-in-law, Allan Bense, a former House speaker himself.)

Meanwhile, the House is requesting $7 million for Jacksonville University, an 80-year-old private college that Weatherford attended on a football scholarship between 1998 and 2002. Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, is one of a dozen lawmakers, mostly from Jacksonville, to have met with school officials.

While UWF belongs to the state’s university system, JU is a private college that has never received money via the Legislature, according to a college spokeswoman, Misty Jackson Skipper. And while it’s not unprecedented that a private college would get such a large sum, it’s not typical, either.

The Legislature has given large amounts to Nova Southeastern University, various historic black private colleges, the University of Miami’s medical school, but $7 million would rank high as a one-time payment.

That might be one reason why the Senate, so far, is only offering $1 million.


In an email, Skipper said the money would be for the Florida Entrepreneurial and Innovation Center. It’s “designed to serve as an innovative economic/educational catalyst to attract businesses to these unique graduates and keep them in Florida upon graduation."

The project is in the initial phase, which means it’s still getting built, the curriculum is still unknown and teachers are still being hired.

“EPIC will be a centerpiece for education in the state and be responsive to the area’s need for attracting a stronger, more qualified workforce,” Skipper said.