Laying the groundwork for a more austere higher-education budget, the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday heard more than three hours of testimony on university spending and the use of foundations by the schools.
Committee Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, said that over the past decade, state funding for the 12-university system has increased by $1.4 billion.
"Do we really think, and there are 30 members of this committee, it is lack of funding? Or do we really think it might be some misappropriation of money?" Trujillo told reporters after the meeting.
Among the issues, the committee members questioned the transfer of more than $50 million in state funding from the universities to their foundations in the 2015-16 academic year. Similar amounts were transferred in prior years.
"I think the House's position is going to be very clear, that the amount of money we've put into the system, the system has almost run wild," Trujillo said.
Trujillo's comments put the House on a collision course with the Senate, where Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, is pushing an ambitious plan to bolster the higher-education system, including the expansion of Bright Futures scholarships. Other portions of the Senate initiative anticipate funding boosts for programs to attract top-quality faculty and to reward high-performing medical, law and business schools.
Most of the House committee's focus was on university foundations, including the transfer of state funding to the foundations. Foundation representatives testified the state funding was used to support personnel who help with fund-raising and other activities.
But Trujillo and other lawmakers questioned whether the foundations had the legal authority to transfer the state dollars.
"Clearly we've got an issue we need to deal with," said Rep. David Richardson, a Miami Beach Democrat who is an accountant.
Richardson said state funding for the universities should go to student activities and learning, while foundation activities, like fund-raising, "should be paid for by the foundation and should not be paid for with the appropriated state dollars."
Committee members asked the universities and foundation officials for more details on funds being used to supplement salaries for faculty and for details on expensive trips funded by foundations.
Among the trips, Trujillo pointed to an $11,283 trip to Dubai last year paid for by the University of Central Florida foundation that included a $6,701 first-class plane ticket.
While university officials said foundation funding, which is largely private, is used to send researchers and scholars on trips related to their fields of study, Trujillo said he wanted to see more justification for the expenditures.
"We don't know if there was really a return on that investment," he said. "I think that's troubling."