Fighting Back: The Fate of the State in Florida

Florida activists are defending higher education against the state.
By Neil Jumonville

Earlier this year, on a sunny and breezy Tuesday in March, more than five hundred students and faculty from Florida State University and nearby Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University met around the ceremonial fountain in front of Westcott Hall, FSU’s dignified old administration building, and prepared to march to the state capitol near downtown Tallahassee. The event was billed as the “Fate of the State” rally and organized by the local faculty union, the FSU branch of the United Faculty of Florida (UFF). The marchers took less than half an hour to reach the designated spot at the back of the towering twenty-two-story capitol, and as the last of the sign-waving, chanting walkers arrived (“What do we want? Funding! When do we want it? Now!”), the singer-activist Anne Feeney was already strumming a protest song, and the crowd was whooping. At the podium, faculty union members disparaged the state legislature and, following that, local legislators promised the crowd change. FSU’s student body president, at the microphone, gave the throng Governor Charlie Crist’s cell phone number.

Funding Education in Florida

The story of this rally, as many participants knew, has a long background. In the early twentieth century, Florida invited the rich to move to the state (and bring your money, please!) with a promise of no income taxes. Coffers could be filled by collecting from tourists and working Joes and Janes through a sales tax. Affluent tourists and snowbirds would support local businesses, and a sales tax would build a wealthy treasury. When those proved insufficient, the state began to charge fees on documents, procedures, and other “intangibles.” The result is a regressive system held together by rubber bands and chewing gum that perfectly exemplifies the late Louisiana senator Russell B. Long’s motto, “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax that man behind the tree.” Florida demonstrated its lack of community spirit by refusing to create a real tax program to pay for social infrastructure, namely, roads, parks, and education. The existing system has never been enough to prevent Florida’s underlying shoddiness from showing.

State universities in Florida have ridden a harrowing roller coaster of funding in recent decades because they are not funded by “recurring revenues,” such as the sales tax, which are relatively predictable each year. Instead, they are financed by “general revenues,” part of which are nonrecurring one-time or leftover monies that can vanish quickly. This arrangement suggests just how little the state values its universities. Each year, the schools need to go hat in hand to the legislature and ask for annual funds in a politically charged atmosphere.

Faculty members are among those who dislike the fiscal uncertainty, and some leave the state because of it. In the FSU history department last year, Matt Childs—an award-winning associate professor who had just been tenured—left for a university in another state, partly because of the unpredictability of salaries and research support from year to year in Florida. Yet the legislature added another problem for him. His scholarly focus is the history of Cuba, and for his books he needs to travel to Cuba to consult archives. But in 2006, several years after he joined the faculty at FSU, the Florida legislature passed a law that prohibited residents of the state from spending money in Cuba, which made it impossible for him to do research there. To be allowed the freedom to do his research he had to move to a university outside of Florida. In 2008, after he left, the courts overturned the travel ban.

Cuts, Past and Future

In the 1980s, when many states were creating lotteries to raise revenues, the Florida legislature promised the state’s voters that lottery funds would, as the New York Times reported, “finance education.” When Republican governor Bob Martinez signed the bill into law, a June 15, 1987, Times article noted that it was expected to raise $144 million in the last half of its first year in operation and then become a “billion-dollar business.” Education in Florida, from kindergartens through universities, would collect the benefits.

Or maybe not. According to Sandy D’Alemberte, a former state legislator, former president of the American Bar Association, and former president of FSU, the money never went to education. “Absolutely not,” he argued in a January 11, 2008, piece in the St. Petersburg Times. The legislature puts the lottery money into education with one hand, he wrote, but with the other it removes the money it formerly contributed in what D’Alemberte called “a shell game.”

Considering the history of the legislature’s makeshift approach to funding, it surprised no one that in early May 2009 the Florida legislature approved card games at Seminole casinos and raised betting limits at dog and horse tracks as a way to fund the state’s needs. Again, it has promised that both K–12 schools and higher education institutions in the state will receive some of the money. And when the legislature then reduces its education contribution by the amount of the Seminole gaming money it acquires, lawmakers can have another good laugh. Some Florida legislators, perhaps, hope for a future when, as a result of their shell game, no state monies will be spent on state schools and the capital’s only responsibility to public education will be to give its opinions to educators about how to run their schools and classes.

Unfortunately, Florida has been one of the states hit hardest by the recent financial crisis. What is the current financial situation at FSU? Since 2007, its administration says, the university’s budget has been cut by over $38 million. The state budget approved by the legislature on May 8, 2009, requires FSU to make another cut of more than $43 million from the institution’s 2009–10 budget and to cut $3.6 million from its medical school. In just a handful of years, the cuts will amount to about $82 million, a sum equal to more than 7 percent of FSU’s 2008–09 operating budget. Furthermore, these cuts follow more than a decade of demands from the legislature that FSU accept more student applicants each year than the state is willing to fund—a practice that has been a substantial hidden budget cut. Combine the recurring hidden cuts with the $82 million cut and it’s hard to put together a history or biology department. In the next year or two, FSU will receive about $22 million in nonrecurring federal stimulus funds, but funding for FSU and other Florida universities will continue to be unstable and unpredictable.

The UFF and the FSU administration have had their battles in the past, especially when the university tried to weaken the union several years ago. But on the current funding crisis they seem to be allied against a common foe: the legislature.

Administrators acknowledge “an impending layoff of in-unit faculty members” to fulfill the 10 percent cuts mandated by the legislature. The plan is to eliminate entire departments or programs instead of making across-the-board cuts, which might result in an institution of universally weakened units. This process is being referred to as making “vertical” instead of “horizontal” cuts. The local Tallahassee newspaper, the Democrat, has reported that, because of union rules, it would be difficult for FSU to dismiss individual faculty members but that “the university has the right to close units, according to its contract with the faculty.”

The UFF, however, wants the opposite: a horizontal instead of a vertical plan for trimming personnel. Its strategy emphasizes unpaid mandatory furloughs “across all units, all ranks, all disciplines, all employee groups (including administration).” Moreover, the UFF says “measures should be progressive,” with pay cuts at a higher percentage for those with higher salaries. A December 2008 union poll of faculty reported that 40 percent supported the furlough plan, 21 percent supported layoffs, and 22 percent favored pay reductions.

Charlie Reed, chancellor of the State University System of Florida in the 1980s and 1990s, used to say derisively about the improvised and inadequate Florida educational budget, “We’re cheap and proud of it.” Unfortunately, the problem is getting worse instead of better.

Neil Jumonville is William Warren Rogers Professor of History at Florida State University. His e-mail address is [email protected].