Central Florida lawmakers ready to back University of Central Florida

'I don't think you want to punish the students,' Fine said.

The University of Central Florida can expect Central Florida lawmakers to have its back if the Florida Legislature considers any punishments in the wake of the misspending scandal being investigated by state officials.

A survey of lawmakers throughout the region found united concern that new internal controls and accountability measures may be necessary not just for UCF but for all of Florida’s 12 state universities, but budget cuts or anything else that might hurt students would be unacceptable.

That consensus includes Republican state Rep. Randy Fine, chair of the House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee, who has been a harsh critic of UCF’s role in the scandal. He declared last month that he was so upset with what the school had done that he would consider shutting it down, comments he later walked back and dismissed as a bad joke.

“We’ve got to make sure we have the right internal controls in these state government agencies, which is what they are, in order to make sure these sorts of things don’t happen again,” said Fine, a Republican from Brevard County. “I don’t think you want to punish the students, the faculty or the alumni. They’re not the ones who did this.”

UCF is in trouble because it illegally redirected $38 million in Education and General Fund money to construct a new building, Trevor Colbourn Hall. The university also redirected another $47 million in E&G Fund money to other construction projects, though much of that was never spent. The scandal has resulted in the resignations of the school’s president, chief financial officer, and Board of Trustees chairman, and the firings of four financial officers. Two state investigations, by the Florida Board of Governors and the House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee, are ongoing.

Last fall, shortly after the scandal emerged, a staff member to the House Appropriations Committee had suggested that UCF be hit with a $38 million cut in funding as punishment. Central Florida lawmakers are united to oppose something like that, while also suggesting they believe it’s unlikely to be proposed.

There are no bills addressing the matter yet.

Republican state Rep. David Smith of Winter Springs is on the House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee conducting one of the state investigations, and his district abuts UCF on the north. He said much the same thing as Fine.

“I think one of the major priorities for the Central Florida delegation that particularly applies to me … is to get this business with UCF settled so everyone is moving forward for a better and brighter future for UCF,” he said. “I think it’s critical for the university and critical for the state university system to wrap up our investigation and put whatever internal control measures in place that need to be administered and get everyone focused on a brighter future for UCF.”

UCF is in the districts of state Sen. Linda Stewart and state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, both Orlando Democrats. They expressed the same concerns.

Carlos Smith, who sits on the House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee, called the proposal to cut $38 million “ridiculous.”

“We need to make sure we move forward from the investigation into UCF misspending of money on a classroom building in a way that doesn’t hurt students, teachers or the institution itself,” he said. “UCF plays a critical and central role to Central Florida’s economy. So we should not be talking about or doing anything that would jeopardize its ability to continue to succeed.”

UCF is not in trouble in the Florida Senate, insisted Stewart, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“We recognize its importance to the economy and the students,” Stewart said. “Accountability is something that no one wants to ignore. If there is a way to make it better I’m sure you’ll see us move forward with some checks and balances that may have not been in play at the time this happened to make sure this doesn’t happen again. I’m all for that and I’m sure you’ll see some bills come out of leadership to do that. But it’s not going to be ‘dismantle UCF.'”

Republican state Sen. David Simmons of Altamonte Springs, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee and on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, declared, “It’s apparent that mistakes were made. It’s also readily apparent that they weren’t handled as well as they could or should have been after the discovery was made.”

But Simmons added, “One thing is for real sure. That is: You don’t penalize the university, the public university, its students, its alumni, its faculty, its administrators and ultimately this community and the state of Florida, and now it looks like the entire university system, based on the mistakes of individuals within the university.”

Republican state Rep. Rene Plasencia, whose Orlando district abuts UCF on the south and east sides and includes areas full of UCF students, faculty, and staff, said no one’s going to do anything that’s UCF specific, and there’s really not any significant Public Education Capital Outlay money for UCF to cut anyway. He also sits on the House Appropriations Committee.

“They’re not going to file legislation that’s specific to only one university. So if they make changes to the university system, it’s a statewide impact,” he said.

“I’m not for penalty cuts,” said Democratic state Rep. Geraldine Thompson of Orlando. “Please don’t hurt the students.”

“We don’t want to hurt the students,” agreed Democratic state Rep. John Cortes of Kissimmee. “My kids are Knights. This is for everybody else’s kids. This is for the betterment of their futures.”

Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected].


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