UFF’s 2014 Legislative Session Final Report



by Tom Auxter, President, United Faculty of Florida

Threats to the Florida Retirement System (SB 1114)

The so-called “FRS Reform” bill, which had the effect of preventing new employees from entering the same system others have now, was defeated.  Senators who spoke on this bill referred to the flood of phone calls they received against the bill, with almost no one favoring it. Sen. Jack Latvala (R) introduced a procedural motion that killed the bill the last week of the session.

This is an important victory.  SB 1114 threatened the retirement security of faculty. Preventing the continual replenishment of the fund would undermine the stability of the entire retirement system and make it more difficult to retain faculty.

FRS is one of the top three public employee retirement funds in the country and is very soundly funded. Changing a sound, healthy system into a system that requires higher and higher employee payments to cover shortfalls means that all employees, who by law have their contributions linked to the pension program, will see the employee contribution of any plan go up. In other words, all of us would lose money out of our paychecks to finance a political scheme calculated to destroy all retirement plans financed by the State of Florida.

If we do our work in the November election, defeating some visible anti-FRS legislators, we will not face this threat next year. If not, we will.

Threats to Health Insurance Benefits (HB 7157)

A bill introduced by Rep. Brodeur proposed putting caps on health insurance plans for public employees. A cap would put a limit on how much the State could pay (e.g., $2,000)  before requiring an employee to pay the rest of the expense. This would potentially cost an employee thousands of dollars extra each year for family coverage.

This bill died earlier in the session when our affiliates (the Florida Education Association and the AFL-CIO) organized opposition preventing the bill from reaching the floor of the Florida House of Representatives.

Textbook Affordability (SB 530)

Although this bill was expected to pass easily, it died in the Appropriations Committee.  Its defeat is a victory for faculty, in that it allows us to retain more control in the choice of course materials.

The purpose of this bill, for the Republican leadership, was to show that the Republican Legislature is committed to saving citizens money on textbooks.  All of the Republicans, including the Governor, wanted this bill to pass before the November election.  Everyone expected it would.

The original bill required instructors to use textbooks for at least three years, so students could buy and sell textbooks at the best prices. It also forced faculty to announce choices two weeks before early registration, in effect, requiring textbook selections to be made before the end of the 2014 fall semester for course selections in fall 2015.

When I testified on this bill before the Senate Appropriations Committee, I pointed out that the bill would require faculty to teach outdated research and also impose onerous regulations. The arguments later appeared in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education:  “Our idea is that we actually take our cutting-edge research into the classroom. We don’t want to have obsolete research be in effect for three years at a cutting-edge university. That’s not how universities operate.” (“Professors Would Have to Use Same Textbook for Three Years Under Florida Bill,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 4/11/2014)

SUS Performance Funding Model (HB 5105)

The Board of Governors proposed this model to force universities to operate more like businesses. The new chair of the BOG has been very aggressive on this issue, claiming that universities should be accountable for every dollar they spend and should suffer financially if they do worse than other universities by criteria applied to all.  Three universities will be identified as worse than others by ten criteria for “excellence.” Those three will be punished with a loss of funds from their annual budget.

This scheme eventually passed but not without substantial revisions after faculty raised objections to the one-size-fits-all model for evaluating 12 very different universities.

UFF argued forcefully, in the press and in the legislature, that each university has its own unique mission, demographics, and responses to service area needs.  Therefore we should have a unique set of criteria that properly assesses the strengths of each university in comparison with its mission.

Faculty in UFF joined students and alumni from New College in strongly protesting how this distorted the evaluation of excellence at the College, which is considered to be the best public honors college in the nation. The result was a new set of criteria for New College that matched its mission.

This argument also worked in relation to the larger urban universities (UCF, USF, and FIU). UF and FSU were already exempted from the uniform criteria because they were considered “preeminent universities.”

In the end the Board of Governors original proposal was reinterpreted to mean the criteria would be used to evaluate and give universities a chance to present a plan to improve before funds would be denied as a final result.  This means we will still have to monitor this and then protest again if there is any backsliding.

The shift to so-called “performance funding” is troubling. In Florida this is an attack on performance under the guise of promoting performance. Florida has been cutting higher education’s share of funding for two decades.  In recent years the per capita funding for higher education has consistently been in the bottom five states of the nation.

At the same time, Florida has been ranked first in the nation by the Chamber of Commerce two years in a row for both access and affordability.  It is impossible to cite a more efficient system anywhere in the country. Universities have been starved for resources. Subtracting funds because politicians design a system to identify losers means that extraordinarily productive institutions, operating on tight budgets to meet student needs, will perform worse, not better.  A punitive and divisive approach is not the solution when the problem is serious underfunding.

Threats to Degrees and Funding for Public Colleges

Joe Negron, who chaired Appropriations in the Senate, spoke several times in committee about the need to rein in public colleges – restricting growth of new bachelor degrees and even reducing spending in general. He contended that we do not have enough money for both an outstanding university system and an outstanding college system.

When I spoke before the Appropriations Committee, I challenged the idea that there should be a moratorium on new degrees. I also spoke about the fact that we have a nationally recognized public college system. I argued that it is wrong to reduce funding to a system that is ranked first in the nation (by the Aspen Institute) for quality of public colleges. There are now 14 Florida colleges in the top 150 — more than New York and California combined. Since the economic development plan for the state also depends on the quality of higher education, we must support the entire higher education system – whether we are thinking about the quality of education for the next generation or the economic health of the State.

The Tampa Bay Times reported (4/4/2014) that Sen. Negron rolled back his plan to limit degrees and funding and agreed with House leaders simply to declare a one-year moratorium on new degree programs at the state college level until further studies can be completed.

Threats to the Sunshine Law in Higher Education

HB 115/SB 318, a seemingly innocuous public records exemption passed by the Florida Legislature this session, has the potential to seriously undermine public higher education and academic freedom.

Now, meetings between university direct support organizations and donor organizations discussing proposed research funding can be held in secret. This means that the public, including faculty and students, would not know who is donating money and what conditions may be applied to donations. This bill is especially significant for Florida institutions after Florida State University accepted a donation from the Charles B. Koch Charitable Foundation to the FSU Department of Economics that gives the Foundation a say in the hiring of faculty.

In 2008, FSU received a $1.5 million donation from the Koch Foundation for the Economics Department to hire faculty for a new program in political economy and free enterprise.  The contract specified that an advisory committee appointed by Koch could decide which candidates should be considered. It reserved the right of the Foundation to withdraw its funding if, during annual evaluations, the Foundation found that faculty did not follow the objectives set by Koch.

With state funding plummeting by more than 30% in Florida since 2008, universities are under pressure to seek funding elsewhere.  However, the price tag is too great if the funding comes with conditions that jeopardize academic freedom and integrity.

A lack of transparency regarding such donations, coupled with the growing reliance of universities on private funding, creates a problem for academic freedom that is increasingly recognized across the nation. Three years ago, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) contemplated the relationship between private money and academic freedom in an observation by the association’s Committee on Academic Freedom. The committee suggested that academic institutions surrender their autonomy and authority — and diverge with principles of academic freedom — when they accept outside funding that is “conditioned on a requirement to assign specific course material that the faculty would not otherwise assign.” http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/06/28/not-just-florida-state#ixzz30VIRKSce

Now “The State University of New York’s Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government is backing away from a politically divisive report critical of a worker’s-rights law, admitting that the industry-financed analysis has multiple major flaws that undermine its central finding.

“The case has shined a spotlight on the question of whether universities and their research institutes, as declining public financing leaves them increasingly reliant on private-sector support, are able to provide policy makers with objective technical advice.

“There are hundreds of such institutes at universities around the country, and it’s often possible to ‘predict the policy outcomes from where their support comes from,’ said Sheldon Krimsky, a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University who writes about bias in research.” http://chronicle.com/article/Its-Integrity-Questioned-SUNY/146247/?cid=at&utm_source=at&utm_medium=en. Secret contracts with funders are part of the undue influence.

Special thanks to UFF Government Relations Co-Chairs Jennifer Proffitt and Teresa Lucas for their strong work in the Legislature this year and for writing the text on SB 318 for this report. Thanks also to Pat Dix (Florida Education Association) and Ana Ciereszko (United Faculty of Miami Dade College) for working with us inside the Legislature to make sure we contacted all the right people at just the right time to make a difference in the outcome. Thanks especially to UFF members on all campuses who responded to calls for action and contacted their legislators. They were the ones providing the groundswell of support from constituents that ultimately convinced legislators to do the right thing when important issues were moving to a vote. 

Here is the link to end of session documents posted on the UFF website. http://www.unitedfacultyofflorida.org/session2014/