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University System Works to End Suit, Improve Relations with State Lawmakers

The university system's governing body may try to finally facilitate an end a two-year-old lawsuit against the Legislature in hopes of building a more solid relationship with lawmakers, particularly as the state enters what is expected to be brutal budget debates this spring.

“We are very interested in having a conversation with the House and Senate leadership about the possibility of a lawsuit settlement,” said university system Chancellor Frank Brogan Friday.

The Board of Governors, created in 2002 by voters to govern the 11 public universities, and lawmakers had never been on the best of terms. But the relationship hit a low point in 2007 when the board joined former Sen. Bob Graham in a lawsuit that attempted to wrest control of tuition setting powers from the Legislature.

Lawmakers weren't exactly pleased, and the relationship, which was already tense, became even frostier.

When the board attempted to take control of tuition setting powers through the lawsuit, then Senate President Ken Pruitt responded by proposing a constitutional amendment that would have greatly reduced the size and scope of the board.

This past legislative session though, university presidents made a plea for funding, warning that cuts to the system would be catastrophic. And lawmakers responded. Pruitt backed Gov. Charlie Crist's proposal to allow individual universities to raise tuition up to 15 percent past what the Legislature had set as tuition.

The tuition measure passed, and board staff has estimated that it could bring in as much as $208 million for the 2012 fiscal year.

The move was also a major boost in improving the relationship between the two bodies, Brogan said because it brought all of the players together on the same page.

“I think it [the relationship] is much better today,” Brogan said. “I think we've taken a giant leap forward over this past year from one legislative session to the one coming up.”

But the lawsuit is still out there. When Brogan, who started his tenure as chancellor a month ago, spoke to the Senate Ways and Means committee a few weeks ago, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, told him point blank that they'd all get along much better if the board wasn't suing the Legislature.

Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, who chairs the Senate's higher education budget writing committee, said she believes the budgeting process has been fair and objective throughout the past few years, but added the suit doesn't make for a “good relationship” with the Legislature as a whole.

“Of course it does make you feel uncomfortable when you're trying to do what is best for higher education and for the institutions, but particularly the students,” she said.

Lynn and other lawmakers are predicting a particularly brutal budget session in spring 2010. Legislative staff are predicting a $2.6 billion shortfall already for next year's budget, which could potentially grow. With growing Medicaid rolls and an increasing focus on Prek-12 public school spending, higher education officials will need all the leverage they can get.

Brogan, for his part, has his own set of political skills he can fall back on in attempts to lobby the Legislature even if the general dynamic between the board and lawmakers doesn't improve. His past employment posts include president of Florida Atlantic University, lieutenant governor for Gov. Jeb Bush, and state education commissioner when that was an elected post.

But Brogan is hoping continued talks to settle the lawsuit will play a major part in improving the dynamic between the two groups and also clearly lay out the roles of the Legislature and board when it comes to the university system. It will help the system as a whole move forward, he said.

“I think if we can settle the lawsuit, I think we can put that behind us and then not only continue the thaw, but jump to the burn,” Brogan said.

Jill Chamberlin, spokeswoman for House Speaker Larry Cretul, said it is generally the House's policy not to comment on litigation. However, she noted that Cretul is pleased with the “energy and optimism” that Brogan is bringing to the table.

“He is hopeful that Brogan's skills and insight will lead to a new era of cooperation between the BOG and the Legislature to the benefit of Florida’s system of higher education,” Chamberlin said in an email.

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