Floridians protest proposed budget cuts

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All photos Liz Hampton/Catalyst

“Is this the Rick Scott fan club?” asked a participant of Sarasota’s “Awake The State” rally held on Feb. 8.

“I don’t think so!” laughed Kindra Muntz, organizer of the Sarasota protest against “the proposed draconian cuts to education, to the homeless, to the environment, to firefighters and policemen, and to the middle class.”

The Awake The State rallies took place in 33 cities throughout Florida and are mainly in response to new Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed changes to the state’s budget. “We’re tired of having the government and the legislature trying to balance the budget on the backs of the middle class,” Muntz continued. “It’s time for us to stand up.”

Since he assumed office on Jan. 4, Scott has started to make his mark. As he said in his State of the State address on March 8, “Doing what must be done will not make me ‘most popular,’ but I’m determined to make Florida ‘most likely to succeed.’”

Scott entered office after running the majority of his campaign on the pillars of job creation and smaller government. His sights are set firmly on achieving his “7-7-7” plan, which aims to create 700,000 jobs in seven years if the state follows his seven steps. The biggest part of this plan is cutting government spending. As many sectors such as healthcare, public safety and transportation are expected to be left reeling when the new budget starts to take effect, public education is gearing up for its biggest cut in years.

“But we’ve been planning for this all along,” New College President Gordon “Mike” Michalson said in response to the proposed budget. “[What] we’ve been doing so far is being very careful in building up reserves. When people have been retiring or leaving jobs, we’ve been maybe doing a little delay in rehiring or filling those jobs because then you build up the salary cash that would otherwise be going to their paycheck. And in the course of a year that can create some extra money.” For a school like New College, which became an independent member of the State University System (SUS) in 2001 without much time or preplanning, economizing has always been a necessary art of survival.

“We’ve just been undertaking a lot of different economies of scale,” Michalson said. “We’ve not replaced some people and we’ve asked other people who’ve stayed to take on extra duties for special pay increases, which has worked pretty well.” But with the impending changes in budget even fervent penny pinching might not be enough.

Contrary to the education reforms by former governors Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist, Scott is proposing a 10 percent cut in the budget for the state education system, including the SUS. Throughout his campaign, Scott highlighted the importance of creating an educated workforce and, with that, the need to ensure grants to state research universities like the University of Florida. His position on small liberal arts colleges like New College is not clearly stated. As of the time of press, the governor’s office has not responded to repeated inquires about his stance thereof.

“We’re very much in the game of finding new support for our strengths in science and math,” Michalson said. “The state interest in the so called STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — in fact plays to our strengths in a sense. We’re not going to tilt the playing field entirely to those areas, but we want to highlight the fact that we’ve traditionally had very strong programs in science and math — we’ve had a lot of people who have gone on in those fields. We also have critical languages like Chinese and Russian, which generate separate support under some conditions, and we’ve been pretty open about emphasizing those strengths here.”

A 10 percent budget cut in education does not necessarily mean a 10 percent cut for New College. For one, the budget for all public education services in Florida is different than that of individual universities, and within each school’s budget are its own rules of appropriation. As a college that prides itself on its academic focus, New College consequently does not have much fat to cut in times of budget crisis, as Michalson explained to the state legislature in February.

“I was called up to Tallahassee two weeks ago to appear before a House [of Representatives] committee to talk about the effects of a five percent cut, 10 percent cut or a 15 percent cut on New College,” he explained. “I said at the five percent level, we would probably just do a more extreme version of what we’ve been doing: delaying hiring for economy lines, looking for ways to cut costs and utilities, [turning] up all the thermostats in summer [and turning] them all down in winter, cut back on purchasing. If it were 10 percent, we’d begin to have to look at furloughs, and I think in the past we decided as a community that in order to protect positions of colleagues we would be more willing to be do furloughs, meaning that there would be designated days that you wouldn’t get paid whether or not you came to work — beginning with those at the highest salary levels.

“15 percent — I don’t even want to think about,” he continued. “I told them that. I said that when you’re talking about a school as small as we are, that gets to rather draconian levels. I said if we got to 15 percent I don’t think we could proceed just on the basis of furloughs. What I told them was that, in the absence of actually laying people off quite aggressively, we’d have to look at permanent salary decreases. And I think we’re way far off from that, but I think that was a candid answer to their straightforward question.”

So far, the SUS and the legislature have stood together to fight for the budget of the higher education system of Florida.

“The House committee was looking to help us out,” Michalson said. “They weren’t looking for ways to hit us over the head. It was clear from their demeanor and my conversation with the chairwoman of the committee that they really wanted to help us out by showing just how draconian it would be if major cuts were made in the state university system against us.

We’re working closely with other universities. This is a case where there may be power in numbers and we’re working closely with the Chancellor’s office looking for ways for us collectively to send a consistent message about the importance of the long term, including the importance to the economic development of the state to keep our university system healthy.”

With the legislature sympathetic to the universities and their role in keeping Florida moving from an economy based on tourism and agriculture toward a “knowledge-based economy,” as Michalson called it, the board has been set for a hard fight on both sides. Michalson also mentioned Scott’s recent troubles operating in a government system instead of a top-down CEO scenario.

“The irony there is that I think his main issues will be with members of his own party,” Michalson said. “He’s not beholden to the special interests in Tallahassee, but I don’t think he can move his own ball downfield without working constructively with those special interests in Tallahassee. That’s just the way it works.”

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