One of the more intense, yet largely behind-the-scenes fights between the Florida Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott during his first three years in office occurred last year over the issue of college tuition.
But it appears that the Legislature is all but ready to declare a truce during an election year.
The Senate Education Committee today is taking up a proposed committee bill (SPB 7036) that would wipe out a clause in state law that allows university tuition to go up by the rate of inflation if state legislators do not include a tuition hike in the state budget. (UPDATE: The committee approved the bill with little discussion or debate.)
The law dates back to a 2007 special session and was signed into law by then-Gov. Charlie Crist. Only a handful of legislators, most of them Democrats and Republicans like Sen. Mike Fasano voted no. Current Lieutenant Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera voted yes.
Jump ahead to the spring of 2013: Scott wanted to keep university tuition as is, but he was challenged primarily by GOP leaders in the Legislature, including House Speaker Will Weatherford. Weatherford argued at the time that tuition in Florida was cheap and that students should share part of the cost.
The Legislature included a 3 percent tuition hike in the state budget - but Scott vetoed it. Scott went so far as to label a tuition hike a "tax increase" even though he had previously been ok with them.
But then there was a twist: There was an argument that despite the veto the inflation index would still kick in. That meant that tuition would go up 1.7 percent and generate about $10.5 million statewide.
This apparently didn't sit well with the Scott administration.
The Tampa Bay Times reported that the administration tried to get university presidents to sign a letter promising they would not raise tuition by any amount. But the presidents balked and refused to do it.
Meanwhile, however, the Florida Board of Governors - which is the state panel responsible for setting statewide policy for all universities - refused to take a stance after it became clear that the Legislature and the Scott administration were at odds over this.
Emails obtained by The Associated Press show that one House budget analyst emailed the chief financial officer for the state university system to say he was "thrilled" the university presidents "stood up to the bullying."
University of Central Florida President John Hitt wanted the state university system to issue a legal ruling, but it did not. A state university system top official acknowledged in another email "we are in a quandary."
In the end the boards of individual universities started raising tuition by the inflation index amount of 1.7 percent - but the Board of Governors never voted to authorize the hikes despite language in another state law that would suggest tuition hikes need to be approved by the panel.
Peter Antonacci, the governor's general counsel, bluntly told the University of South Florida that such a vote by university boards was "simply not mandated under the law." Antonacci argued that the inflationary tuition hike could only be implemented if the Legislature had done nothing.
From his email: "The votes taken by the Board Trustees of certain state universities to increase tuition based upon section 1009.24(4)(b), F.S. fundamentally misconstrue the operation of the statute and its interaction with the constitutional powers of the Legislature in relation to a gubernatorial veto."
Antonacci went even further: "The fact that the Governor exercised his line-item veto authority of that legislatively-chosen tuition amount does not remove that provision from existence, as if it had never been written at all. The veto authority is the 'power to nullify, or at least suspend, legislative intent. It is not designed to alter or amend legislative intent. Although suspended by the gubernatorial veto, the item nonetheless continues to exist because it may thereafter be revived by a legislative override."
This past fall the Board of Governors appeared ready to take steps to avoid future arguments about the inflationary index. In September, the board quietly approved the development of a rule that would make it clear tuition rates would go up automatically each year by the rate of inflation if legislators did not increase tuition in the budget.
But that rule was never passed.
It was supposed to be adopted in November, but it did not show up on the agenda. When asked a spokeswoman for the Board of Governors stated that it needed to be delayed for further development and that it was unlikely it would be considered before this spring.
A change in state law of course would eliminate the need for the rule.
The passage of the bill would also allow Scott to point out during his re-election campaign that tuition rates stayed flat this year.
Scott did not propose a tuition hike this year when he rolled out his budget recommendations in January.
And just as importantly, Weatherford pledged this year that legislators would keep tuition flat as well. The Wesley Chapel Republican went further and said that lawmakers would scale back a separate law that currently lets universities pass a "differential" tuition hike that can be assessed above what the Florida Legislature does - as long as the overall hike is not higher than 15 percent than the existing rate.
Weatherford acknowledged that part of the reason that legislators are taking these actions are because it had become apparent that the governor was unwilling to change his stance on tuition.