Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, FL 33132.
At a time when Florida’s 11 state universities are financially gasping, the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott are throwing $50 million away on a whimsical new school that might as well be called Useless State.
It’s the work of a Lake Wales Republican named J.D. Alexander, who – sadly for taxpayers – chaired the powerful Senate Budget Committee.
Alexander is leaving the Legislature because of term limits, but as a going-away present he demanded that his colleagues fund a new university in his home district. And then he basically stomped his little feet and held his breath and huffily threatened to gut another school’s budget if he didn’t get his way.
And most of his fellow Republicans, including our governor, caved in like the phonies and wimps they are.
As a result, Floridians are paying for a new university that we don’t need, and is already millions over budget before the first class meets. It’s a foolhardy and very expensive mistake, and its name is Florida Polytechnic.
If you live in the Lakeland area, you know that there has existed for many years a busy tech campus, a branch of the University of South Florida.
Along comes Sen. Alexander and decides that Lakeland urgently needs its own independent state university, that the school should be called Florida Polytechnic and that it should replace USF Polytech, which has been there 20 years.
Alexander pushed hard, saying a whole new institution was needed to produce more graduates with the skills to fill jobs in science, engineering and technology.
When some lawmakers balked, Alexander said he would hack $79 million from the USF budget – a brutal 58 percent reduction for a school serving 47,000 students.
The House would never have approved eviscerating USF, but Alexander’s empty threat worked on empty-headed legislators – and thus was born Useless State.
Classes are supposed to begin the fall of 2013, but the instant university is facing a few problems.
No board of trustees, for example, which makes it hard to attract a president.
No president, which makes it hard to attract faculty.
No faculty, which makes it hard to attract students.
And then there’s the issue of money. Your money.
Does $12 million in architectural fees for Florida Polytechnic sound reasonable to parents of students at the University of Florida or Florida State or A&M, who are facing hefty hikes in tuition and housing?
According to the Tampa Bay Times, USF chief operating officer John Long says the construction project on the Lakeland campus will cost between $112 million and $115 million.
Unfortunately, there’s only about $99 million available.
The shortfall would be made up by private donors, hopefully in time to install technology labs before a few actual technology students show up.
A fuller picture of the Florida Polytechnic fiasco was laid out last month to a committee of the state Board of Governors, which is supposed to oversee the university system.
Normally the board would have been deeply involved with the birth of the new school – an authority granted by voters in a constitutional amendment. The whole point was to avoid such costly debacles, and to buffer higher education from the influence of grimy politics.
But, as we know, constitutionality isn’t a burning concern of current legislative leaders, or of the governor, no matter how many of their dumb moves get stomped in court.
In this case, one vain and powerful senator wanted a brand new university, and he didn’t want to wait for the Board of Governors, which had already approved a stepped plan for developing Florida Polytechnic.
At Alexander’s prodding, lawmakers barged ahead and created the school, basically evicted USF and started shoveling money toward Lakeland. Even that town’s Republican senator, Paula Dockery, was chagrined.
Before the troglodytes took control of Tallahassee, nobody went out and started a public university without a set number of students, without infrastructure, without leadership.
Or accreditation. You remember accreditation, right?
Meanwhile J.D. Alexander is out the door, damage done.
Only a coldblooded cynic would wonder if Alexander or any of his pals will benefit from the gush of taxpayer funds being used to construct Useless State.
A court could stop the bleeding, but in the meantime applications are being taken for the make-believe school’s Board of Trustees.
Gov. Scott recently sent out an email seeking candidates.
He says he’s looking for “talented and visionary individuals.”
He’ll also send his personal unicorn to pick you up and fly you through the fairy dust to Lakeland.
Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, FL 33132.