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St. Pete Chamber loses bigly in debate over USF consolidation

The battle over the Senate’s high-priority higher-education bill has left a high-profile loser: The St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce.

The Chamber has been leading the opposition to a plan to unite the University of South Florida System into a single university. As the proposal made its way through the legislative process, the Chamber asked the Legislature “to hit PAUSE” on the idea and requested a formal study of the plan.

“We are concerned with the pace of taking this from an idea to a policy without any public process or due diligence,” read a release from the Chamber.

Behind the scenes, informal advisers to the Chamber who are versed in the way Tallahassee operates warned Chamber leadership not to go too far in opposing the plan. Bringing the St. Pete and Manatee-Sarasota campuses back into the fold is a priority of Senate President-designate Bill Galvano and Speaker-to-be Chris Sprowls. Don’t risk alienating them by making the issue personal, these advisers warned.

The Chamber, especially its advocacy manager Matt Lettelier, did not listen. It went full-bore with its #PushPauseUSFSP effort.

In doing so, they’ve made a bad situation worse.

Instead of having a place at the table, they’re being sent to the corner. Literally.

As part of an effort to appease local concerns about the merger, lawmakers built in protections for the regional campuses.

According to Claire McNeil of the Tampa Bay Times, an amendment from state Rep. Larry Ahern would set up a task force with a wide-ranging membership and an even broader list of responsibilities, which underscore the monumental shift that could soon be facing the USF System. Members would be asked to consider the very identity of the regional campuses. How can USF maintain the unique identities of its campuses as one university? Should each campus have its own educational mission?

Originally, an amendment to the bill (SB 4) from St. Petersburg Democrat Ben Diamond had a member of the Chamber designated to serve on the task force.

However, sources close to the House Education committee tell Florida Politics that the way some representatives of the Chamber lobbied lawmakers turned even those neutral on the issue against the Chamber.

The House passed the bill Monday and sent it to Gov. Rick Scott Tuesday for his review.

He has until March 21 to act.

The Senate voted 33-5 for the measure, which was originally approved by the Senate in the first week of the Session and is a top priority for Negron, a Stuart Republican. The House earlier on Monday voted 84-28 for the bill, called the “Florida Excellence in Higher Education Act.”


The News Service of Florida contributed background to this post. 

Written By

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including Florida Politics and Orlando Rising and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. Schorsch is also publisher of INFLUENCE Magazine. For several years, Peter's blog was ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.

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