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Politics

Lawmakers Eye Higher Education Projects

February 22, 2017 - 11:00pm

From robotics competitions to Alzheimer's research to new state college buildings, higher-education advocates on Wednesday made their pitches to Senate and House committees for funding in the next state budget.

The Senate Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee heard presentations on about a dozen projects and initiatives. The panel has asked all institutions and programs receiving state funding to file reports on how money is being used and to highlight outcomes of the expenditures.

Subcommittee Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said the reports will be used to build an initial higher-education budget proposal, which he said will have "significant cuts" at the project level.

Some projects unlikely to receive funding will be those that did not respond to the Senate's request for an evaluation of the spending.

"The ones that didn't give responses, they are starting out in a difficult position because the whole point of the exercise is to see the efficiency, the efficacy and the effectiveness," Galvano said. "The responses or lack thereof are a significant part of the analysis we do in terms of putting out our initial cuts."

However, a number of successful projects and their impacts were highlighted by senators and advocates on Wednesday.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said he is supporting a $300,000 request to continue funding for a robotics competition through Florida Atlantic University. The competition allows high-school students to build robots and compete in the state and nationally, he said.

Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, voiced support for a $2.8 million request for a "community schools" program run through the University of Central Florida that targets low-performing schools and helps develop improvement plans. Jenny Gibson-Linkh, principal of Evans High School in Orlando, said the program has led to a dramatic turnaround at her school, including an 88 percent graduation rate.

"It makes us feel good that the work we're doing to fund these kind of endeavors is actually is paying off," Simmons said.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, asked for support of an $800,000 request for Florida Gateway College in Lake City for a public safety facility. Bradley said the state funding would be matched by local funds.

Also Wednesday, the House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee approved eight higher-education projects as part of the House's new budget procedure where spending projects are filed as separate bills.

The House panel supported a $2 million request (HB 2057) for the University of Florida's Center for Translational Research in Neurodegenerative Disease, which does research into diseases like Alzheimer's.

The subcommittee also approved a $1.6 million request (HB 2211) that would allow Florida Gulf Coast University to convert its honors program into a full-fledged college.

Rep. Larry Ahern, a Seminole Republican who chairs the higher-education spending panel, said the separate funding bills were part of the House's effort to bring "more transparency" to the annual appropriations process.

However, he also warned that initial approval from the subcommittee did not mean the projects or their full funding would end up in the House's budget bill during the legislative session that starts March 7.

"This is just the next step in the process of developing our budget," he said.

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