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Florida House takes microscope to university and college construction

FSU drone shot
SCOTT KEELER | Times FOR FILE- Aerial of Florida State University campus with Doak Campbell Stadium in the foreground, Tallahassee.
Two days after Florida House Speaker José Oliva criticized higher education’s “endless appetite for new construction," colleges and universities appeared before a House committee to justify their requests for state funds to build or renovate buildings.
They faced a meticulous financial questioning about each project on Thursday, and House Higher Education Appropriations committee chair Rep. Randy Fine said that process would continue for the next two weeks.
The questioning spurred universities and colleges to bring out the big guns — Florida State University President John Thrasher, a former speaker of the Florida House and Florida Atlantic University Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, former president of the Florida Senate, both attended. So did a slew of other college presidents and provosts, in addition to the usual cadre of lobbyists.
“This is not a kabuki exercise, this is a legitimate exercise to vet these projects," Fine said. “I think some projects did a great job of justifying themselves, and may be frankly, to me a no-brainer. Others, I still have some questions.”
Thrasher said he felt the process was appropriate scrutiny over how the institutions use taxpayer money. After it was discovered that the University of Central Florida and others improperly used operational dollars for construction, the Florida House has turned up the heat.
But Thrasher also said he hopes the Legislature will continue to recognize that the universities are investments for the good of the entire state. Lawmakers in past years have challenged Florida’s universities to rise in national rankings, which several, including FSU, have done.
“Our overall point is to try to reach a higher level of expertise,” he said. “We think (the construction projects) will be beneficial to the university system and to the state of Florida, for that matter.”
Many of the projects under scrutiny have already begun with an initial investment of state dollars. However, that doesn’t mean that the state has an obligation to fund the rest of the construction. Among the projects addressed were: a new data sciences facility and new music building at the University of Florida; a business studies building, an interdisciplinary facility and a sciences lab at Florida State University.
Miami-Dade College’s executive vice president and provost Lenore Rodicio also presented, making the case for funding so the college can renovate its law enforcement training facility as well as a building it will use to train students to engineer and fix Tesla electric cars.