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Aaron Sharockman
By Aaron Sharockman April 5, 2011

In column, Bob Graham scolds Legislature for university funding cuts

Former Democratic governor and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham is taking to the editorial pages of Florida's newspapers to warn against a slow march by the Republican-dominated Legislature against the state's core values.

In an opinion column that appeared in the St. Petersburg Times on April 3, 2011, Graham openly questioned whether the Legislature's decision over the past decade to reduce taxes has produced the high-quality jobs the tax cuts promised, and whether the Legislature is backing away from a commitment to preserve the Florida Everglades.

He also took on the Legislature when it comes to how the state funds its university system. In doing so, he provided a claim that piqued our interest. He wrote:

"Since 1990, in inflation-adjusted dollars, per-student funding of the state university system from general revenue has dropped by about $4,000," Graham wrote. "These savage cuts to education expose a lack of vision for Florida's future."

We've heard Graham talk about the Legislature and the state university system before. In 2007, he sued the Legislature, arguing that it did not have the authority to set tuition rates. That power, he said, is left up to the Board of Governors. A circuit court judge last year ruled against Graham, who said he will appeal.

In this case, Graham is talking about the money the Legislature sets aside in general revenues -- mostly from sales tax proceeds -- to fund the university system.

Graham's numbers actually came from the Board of Governors, the statewide governing body for the university system that was created by the passage of a constitutional amendment in 2002.

Kelly Layman, a spokeswoman for the Board of Governors and university system Chancellor Frank Brogan, provided PolitiFact Florida the same spreadsheet it provided Graham when he requested it. The spreadsheet details university funding from the 1990-91 budget -- Republican Bob Martinez's last budget as governor -- to the current 2010-11 budget.

The big takeaway?

The vast majority of dollar-for-dollar increases into the university system are overwhelming the result of increases to student tuition.

In 1990, general tax revenues funded 71 percent of per-student costs while tuition covered 18 percent.

In 2010, taxes funded 49 percent of per-student costs. Tuition covered 40 percent.

In bottom line numbers, taxes funded $5,131 a student in 1990 compared to $5,682 in the current budget. Using the U.S. Department of Labor's online inflation calculator, $5,131 in 1990 dollars is worth $8,688 today.

That's $3,006 less. Short of the "about $4,000" Graham claimed.

We reached Graham to ask him about the difference. Graham told us he calculated the figure a slightly different way. He took the 1990 allocation -- $5,131 -- and popped it into a compound interest calculator like this one. He factored in 3 percent annual interest growth, and calculated out for 21 years -- 1990 to 2011.

The result? $9,626.45. He then subtracted $5,682 (the current funding) to get an inflation-adjusted spending reduction of $3,944.45.

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"We should be investing in our students and our universities, and instead we're not," Graham said.

It's worth noting that the amount of tax dollars funding the university system didn't fall off a cliff in 1990. In fact, after a decrease in 1991, spending increased. In 1998, tax dollars contributed $6,950 per student ($9,400 in today's dollars when adjusted for inflation). Dollars slowly melted away after that, or if the Legislature approved funding increases, they failed to keep up with the cost of inflation. As late as 2007, the Legislature directed $7,685 in tax dollars to the university system, which translates to about $8,200 when adjusted for inflation.

Graham said that "since 1990, in inflation-adjusted dollars, per-student funding of the state university system from general revenue has dropped by about $4,000." He used a compound interest calculator to come to that figure, but that assumes inflation from 1990-2011 averaged 3 percent per year. According to the Department of Labor, the economy did not grow quite at that rate -- hence the disparity between Graham's calculation and ours.

That said, he's right that tax dollars are not funding the state university system the way it did two decades ago.

So we rate Graham's statement Mostly True.

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In column, Bob Graham scolds Legislature for university funding cuts

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