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Senate Offers Study on FAMU-FSU; House Offers Lagoon Money

April 27, 2014 - 6:00pm

The Florida Board of Governors would decide whether to break up the joint College of Engineering run by Florida A&M University and Florida State University under a new offer in budget negotiations Sunday.

The Senate, which has pushed $13 million in funding for FSU to create its own engineering school, floated a proposal that would let the Board of Governors study the issue instead. The panel, which oversees the state's 12 universities, would have to make a decision on whether to split the school by March 1, 2015.

However, Senate leaders haven't formally backed away from $3 million in their budget proposal to operate a stand-alone school at FSU, and no offers have been traded on the education construction portion of the budget, where the Senate included $10 million for the proposed college.

The board would study three options for engineering programs at FSU and FAMU, including keeping the joint college; setting up "an independent College of Engineering at one or each of the universities;" and offering "differentiated engineering programs" at FSU and FAMU.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said the new proposal was in line with comments about a potential split of the engineering school made by House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, late last week.

"The speaker had advocated for involving the Board of Governors in that decision, so I think where we are moves us in that direction," Negron said. "And we'll still have to work out those final issues in the next day or so."

Giving FSU its own engineering school -- which the university says will help it move up in the ranks of elite public universities -- has been a priority of influential Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine. Thrasher is an alumnus of FSU and is seen as one of the contenders to become the university's next president.

Thrasher told The News Service of Florida on Sunday that he was satisfied with the $150,000 study offered by the Senate.

"I think the money that we had in the budget obviously got the conversation started," he said.

The proposal to separate the two colleges sparked an uproar at FAMU. Leaders and alumni recalled the closing of the university's college of law in the 1960s, at the same time a similar school was opened at FSU. Florida A&M regained its law school under a bill pushed through the Legislature in 2000.

Rep. Alan Williams, a Tallahassee Democrat and strong supporter of FAMU, said the proposal addressed concerns that the issue was being rushed through the Legislature.

"If there's one silver lining, it is that it now goes to the BOG to have them make a more rational decision based on the information that, hopefully, this report will provide," Williams said. "We're pleased with the direction that it's going in right now, and I believe that all groups involved will be, hopefully, pleased with at least the outcome that we've had thus far."

The House seemed to give Negron almost all of what he wanted on funding for projects related to the Everglades, the Indian River Lagoon and the Lake Okeechobee area. An offer made Sunday would provide almost $96 million that was included in the Senate budget but not the House plan.

Polluted runoff from Lake Okeechobee into nearby waterways has been a major issue during the past year on the state's Treasure Coast, which includes Negron's hometown of Stuart. Negron said he appreciated the offer on environmental projects but believed "there are still some remaining issues that we need to work out."

And lawmakers have settled on $2 million in public transportation improvements related to the Skyrise Miami project, a 1,000-foot-high business and amusement feature that would dominate Miami's skyline. The Senate had balked at $10 million for the project in a line item the chamber said was too vague.

The movement on the budget issues came after negotiations appeared to stall Saturday. McKeel and Negron, who were expected to meet at least once Saturday, instead decided late in the day against holding a conference.

Lawmakers could meet again late Sunday as they work to get a final budget deal done ahead of a Tuesday deadline to have the document on lawmakers' desks. The legislative session is scheduled to end Friday, and lawmakers are required to wait 72 hours before voting on the completed budget. That means the budget must be finished Tuesday or the session would be sent into overtime.

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