FAU Plays Legislative Waiting Game

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The Florida House and Senate are billions apart on their budget halfway through the legislative session, which could be bad for Florida Atlantic University.

FAU’s latest big deal is a biotech-oriented program with Scripps Florida and the Max Planck Florida Institute at the Jupiter campus that also is home to the two research facilities. Before the Legislature is a request from FAU for $29 million that would finance a building on the Jupiter campus. Though FAU President John Kelly announced the program a day before the Legislature convened on March 3, FAU had submitted the request last October to the Florida Board of Governors. The board oversees the State University System, and each year decides which construction priorities will go to the Legislature.

According to FAU, the university is recruiting the first students for the program based on enrollment in the fall of 2016. Being able to tell those students that FAU has secured money for the building would seem to be a recruiting tool. A spokesman, though, says FAU intends to proceed no matter what happens in Tallahassee.

“The building is just one component of a growing campus,” the university said in a statement responding to my questions. FAU counts 1,500 students in Jupiter. “At our current rate of expansion, we will soon fully occupy both of our current research buildings. … Of course, this new venture will quickly and significantly increased the student population on our Jupiter campus. Naturally, the new facility will allow us to better accommodate increased activities in Jupiter while providing our students with a new state-of-the-art research and training facility.”

You can presume that this money is what Kelly had in mind when he said FAU needs “speeded-up” money from Tallahassee, not new money. The $29 million is a capital budget request, but the university also wants additional operating money “to accelerate the implementation of this new collaboration.” FAU would use the money to hire graduate assistants and tech staffers.

Though Florida’s economy continues to improve – more about that later in this post – the budget differences between the House and Senate are profound, and the jockeying could affect every request for money.

The difference is over health care. The Senate has included $2.8 billion for expansion of Medicare, though Republican leaders would call it something other than expansion of Medicare, given the enduring politics over the federal health care law. The Senate has included another $2 billion for extension of the Low Income Pool that provides health coverage to the working poor. The House has included neither item in its budget, meaning that the two chambers are roughly $5 billion apart.

Since the Low Income Pool money is for the same people whom Medicaid expansion would cover, the Senate’s budget is both redundant and optimistic. The Low Income Pool money is set to expire, because the assumption by the Obama administration has been that since the federal government is offering to pay 100 percent for the first three years and 90 percent after that, by now all states would have expanded Medicare. Florida has not, and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, says he remains opposed.

Even the hardest positions change, however, and Republican-friendly business groups are pushing hard for Medicaid expansion – also without calling it Medicaid expansion. So lots of money could get moved around. Though FAU’s building is a capital budget item – from the fund for university construction projects – legislators see one big pot of money.

Regardless of how the budget battle comes out, FAU said in its statement that “the university will move forward with the (Scripps-Max Planck) program, though the timeline may vary accordingly.” Given Kelly’s well-known impatience, he would dislike any variance in the timeline, which means that the pressure is on FAU’s lobbyists and the Palm Beach County legislative delegation.

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Last week, I reported on the Board of Governors’ two appointments to the FAU Board of Trustees. There are 13 trustees, six appointed by the governor and five appointed by the Board of Governors. The two other spots go to the presidents of the Faculty Senate and student government, who are Ronald Nyhan and Michael Cepeda.

At the most racially and ethnically diverse of Florida’s public universities, there is just one woman among the 11 appointed trustees and no African-Americans or Hispanics.

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Boca Raton has pushed back the date of a very important public meeting.

The topic is the city’s Interim Design Guidelines for downtown projects. The Mark was the first project approved under the guidelines, and there is general agreement among city council members and residents that the guidelines did not produce the sort of stylish, compatible look that was envisioned when the city adopted the guidelines. The Mark itself is separate from the coming Hyatt Place Hotel, on the same property. Most people are pleased with the hotel design.

A workshop had been scheduled for Thursday at the Boca Raton Community Center. Instead, it will be held on April 29 from 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. in the council chambers.

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When I reported last week on the projected savings to Boca Raton from the city’s proposed pension deals with the police and fire unions, I said the police contract ends the use of overtime in calculating pension benefits. In fact, that applies only to new hires.

That could be one reason why the savings over 30 years from the police contract are estimated at roughly $43.8 million compared to about $49 million for the firefighters contract. No firefighter is allowed to use overtime toward his or her pension benefits.

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A neighborhood parking problem has gotten really bad when the neighbors are willing to pay if that will help to make things better.

At tonight’s meeting, the Delray Beach City Commission likely will approve a plan for permit parking in the Marina Historic District, bordered by East Atlantic Avenue, the Intracoastal Waterway, Southeast Third Street and Northeast Seventh Avenue. As the name implies, it is the area clustered around the city-owned marina, which allows people to live on their boats.

The city has offered a parking permit program for marina users since 2013. Because of the marina and all the nightlife on East Atlantic, street parking through the area is rampant, so residents of the Marina Historic District want their program. The memo from City Manager Don Cooper, who recommends approval, notes the “various challenges the neighborhood has experienced.” City Commissioner Shelly Petrolia puts it less delicately: “Drunken customers staggering loud and obnoxious to cars at 1 a.m. is enough to be considered a problem by anyone’s definition.”

Residents could pay $60 a year for one permanent permit and another that would be transferrable from one vehicle to another. Other permits, aimed at short-term renters, would last for up to 13 weeks. Marina residents could buy their own passes.

The program, however it may help, is more evidence that Delray Beach is far from a citywide plan for parking.

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Recent economic reports about Florida contain information both optimistic and interesting.

The state added almost 20,000 jobs in February, and for three years employment growth has been roughly 50 percent above the national average. The improvement has touched all major industries, especially construction. In addition to the usual residential and the typical commercial projects, Wells Fargo reports an increase in heavy construction, meaning industrial and infrastructure. Florida could use a statewide program on roads and bridges, but airport and seaport expansion remains strong.

Construction hiring is up 9 percent from a year ago, but it amounts to just 5.2 percent of Florida’s job base. That’s down from a historic average of 6.5 percent. It hit 8.7 percent during the real estate bubble, but that number was artificially high, since so many houses were being built to flip, not to live in.

Interestingly, Wells Fargo reports that Brazil has supplanted Canada as Florida’s largest trading partner. Also interestingly, hiring in hotel and motel employment has lagged even as it steams along in other parts of the hospitality and leisure industry. Researchers speculate that it’s the effect of websites like Airbnb. Tourists are coming and spending money, but not all are staying in hotels.

Finally, there are warnings of a labor shortage for skilled construction subcontractors. If that’s true, even with construction not in high gear, it’s an issue for educators and business groups.

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At my Camino Lakes neighborhood picnic Saturday afternoon, the Boca Raton City Council could have held a meeting in the sunshine, even if it wouldn’t have met the strict Sunshine Law standard for public meetings.

Mayor Susan Haynie attended, as did council members Scott Singer and Robert Weinroth. Jeremy Rodgers came, and he doesn’t take office until today. I mention this because almost all of them had been at other gatherings on what for most in Boca was a day off. For local elected officials who take their job seriously, though, there aren’t many days off, even if those officials technically are classified as part-timers.

You can disagree with how council members or commissioners vote, but you must respect those who get out in the community and put in the time to read all the reports and attend all the meetings. With the mayor making $9,000 and the council members $7,200, no one runs for the city council to get rich.

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You can email Randy Schultz at randy@bocamag.com

For more City Watch blogs, click here.About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.

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Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.