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State Faces Class-Action Lawsuit On Higher Ed Funds

University of Florida's Ben Hill Griffin Stadium
University of Florida's Ben Hill Griffin Stadium

Two University of Florida alumni have filed a class-action lawsuit against the state, saying lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott funneled money that should have gone to higher education into tax cuts and savings.

The legal challenge, filed last week, is based on the Legislature's decision not to provide matching funds for private donations to colleges and universities. State law creates four matching programs, and the plaintiffs argue that lawmakers are required to match the donations unless the state faces a budget shortfall.

The alumni, Ryan and Alexis Geffin --- who graduated in 2016 and 2017, respectively --- say they were harmed particularly because matching funds weren't provided for construction projects at the University of Florida.

In all, the lawsuit says the state's failure to fund the programs has locked up more than $1 billion that should have been available to colleges and universities, including at least $600 million in state matching funds and $460 million in private donations waiting for matches.

The filing also contrasts statements by Scott and legislative leaders touting the importance of higher education with the refusal to set aside funding for the matching programs.

"Rather than appropriate the over $600 million in state funds owed, the governor and the Legislature have spent general revenue surpluses on multibillion dollar tax cuts and to set aside billions in reserves," it says.

The programs subject to the lawsuit include the Dr. Philip Benjamin Matching Grant Program, which primarily provides scholarships and financial aid; the University Major Gifts Program, aimed at encouraging donations to university endowments; and two construction-related funds, the Florida College System Institution Capital Facilities Matching Program and the Alec P. Courtelis University Facility Enhancement Challenge Grant Program.

According to the lawsuit, the problems began in 2008, when the state first faced shortfalls from the recession. Payments to the matching funds stopped, something that the legal challenge doesn't contest.

But after the state again began running surpluses, lawyers for the alumni argue, the state should have resumed making the payments to the matching funds. Instead, the Legislature has continued to omit the funding.

"The state of Florida made a promise --- a promise codified in Florida law and further reinforced in promises made to donors --- and, there is no other way to put this, but the state reneged on that promise," said Grace Mead, a lawyer with the firm Stearns Weaver Miller, which is representing the alumni. "The purpose of this suit is to force the state to fulfill that promise."

According to Stearns Weaver Miller, UF could be due more than $155 million, while Florida State University, Florida International University and the University of South Florida could be owed more than $40 million each. Miami Dade College could be due more than $70 million.

Mead also said she expects a lawsuit on behalf of donors whose contributions weren't matched.

A spokeswoman for Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican who has made higher-education funding a priority, said Thursday that his office was reviewing the challenge. A spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education said the agency had not received the lawsuit, but would review it.

*Alexis Geffin formerly reported for WUFT News. 

The News Service of Florida is a wire service to which WUFT News subscribes.