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Nancy Smith

Court Rules Florida Legislature, Not Board of Governors, Sets Tuition

October 12, 2011 - 6:00pm

The long, bitter battle over who would set tuition rates in Florida -- the Board of Governors or the state Legislature -- ended Wednesday when the 1st District Court of Appeal, upholding a lower court opinion, came down firmly on the side of the Legislature.

The vote of the three-judge panel was unanimous.

The decision likely will be appealed to the Florida Supreme Court.

"This is a great victory for the Legislature and for the families of Florida," said Ken Pruitt, president of the Florida Senate in 2007 when the case was filed, and one of the legislators skewered in the press for opposing fomer Gov. Bob Graham.

Graham led a group that sued the state, saying the Board of Governors should have authority over tuition. Lawmakers historically have kept Florida in-state tuition rates far below the national average, which has pleased parents and students but prompted criticism that state universities are cash-strapped and unable to fulfill their educational goals.

Pruitt and the Legislature argued that only those elected by the voters of Florida should set rates and fees.

It was Graham's citizen initiative that created the Board of Governors through an amendment to the Florida Constitution. The appeal panel ruled the BOG amendment did not shift the Legislature's authority over tuition rates to the board.

District Judge T. Kent Wetherell II wrote this for his panel: "The legislative power to raise funds is not limited to the imposition of taxes; it includes the power to impose fees necessary to offset the costs of using state governmental services."

The amendment did nothing to change that, concluded Wetherell, son of former state House speaker and retired Florida State University president T.K. Wetherell.

The decision ultimately will be appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, said Robin Gibson, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

Said Gibson, "The whole purpose of this is to get to the Supreme Court. The opinion has done us all a favor because it has narrowed the focus of the issue."

Besides Graham, a Democrat and also a former U.S. senator, the plaintiffs include former U.S. Rep. Lou Frey, a Republican, and former Florida State University president Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, also once a Democratic lawmaker.

Other judges on the panel are Bradford Thomas, a former legislative staffer, and Ronald Swanson.

At one time the Board of Governors itself had joined the lawsuit on the side of the Graham group. But it withdrew after the Legislature agreed to jointly share tuition-setting.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.

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