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Legislative Roundup: UWF makes the rounds at the Capitol, HB 999 update

Members of the Florida House of Representatives are seen during a legislative session at the Florida State Capitol on March 7 in Tallahassee.
Wilfredo Lee
Members of the Florida House of Representatives are seen during a legislative session at the Florida State Capitol on March 7 in Tallahassee.

The 2023 Florida Legislative Session is now in its second week, and starting this week, WUWF is beginning a series of legislative updates on issues that are of particular interest to residents in Northwest Florida and the University of West Florida. Earlier today, Sandra Averhart spoke with Rachel Witbracht, director of government relations for UWF.

Sandra Averhart: Florida lawmakers are about a week into the 2023 legislative session. Give us an update beginning with Monday when you spent the day at the Capitol with UWF President Dr. Martha Saunders.

Rachel Witbracht: Monday, President Saunders and a group of our esteemed faculty and students visited the Capitol for UWF Day at the Capitol. We went around meeting with lawmakers, talking about some of our best and brightest programming. We had students from the nursing program, from cybersecurity engineering, and also supply chain logistics, which was of particular interest to the legislature. I think every person, no matter who you are or what you do, experiences issues post COVID with supply chain. So, we got to speak about what they've learned and the research that they have done, and also advocate for some funding for those programs as well. President Saunders and I had some great meetings with the members of House and Senate leadership, and they were all very receptive to what we do over here.

Averhart: In Pensacola now, specific to some of the budget requests for the University.

Witbracht: UWF this session is going to be looking for money for those key programs and also some money to expand our infrastructure on campus so we can keep growing. If you've been on campus sometime in the last five years, and you were there before that, you know how much UWF is growing. So we're looking to build a satellite infrastructure plant so we can continue that growth. We're also looking for money to get rid of the Pizza Huts, which I know can be a sore subject for some of our older alumni. Those things have been unusable since 2016, so we're hoping that we can knock those down this session.

Averhart: And for the uninitiated, these are the University's original dorms.

Witbracht: They are the original dorms. And actually, when I was a student on campus, I lived in them.

Averhart: So, you mentioned some of the University's budget requests. Talk generally now about Governor DeSantis' budget?

Witbracht: The Governor released his proposed budget at a historic almost $115 billion, which is the highest that we have ever seen here in the state of Florida. And $15 billion of that proposed budget would go to our reserves. So, we call that our rainy day fund over here in Tallahassee, which would give us some funds just in case there were any natural disasters like hurricane recovery. And also in his budget, there were efforts for increased hurricane recovery with all of the just super impactful storms that we've seen over the last few years. Michael in the Panhandle, and then the one most recently down in South Florida last year. I think that's a great way for us to be thinking ahead, because we're never going to get rid of hurricanes, they're never going to stop. What we can do is figure out how we can build resiliency around those storms. And then also, another interesting part of the governor's proposed budget is there would be permanent tax exemptions on baby and child care items like diapers and strollers. So if the legislature decides to fund that, I think that's something that's great for Florida families.

Averhart: Let's talk now about what's happening withHB 999, this bill related to higher education, sponsored by Representative Alex Andrade. Give us a little bit of information about this legislation, and then give us an update on its progress.

Witbracht: It does a multitude of things, but I think mostly what it does is carry on from what the legislature did last year with theStop Woke Act, which was HB 7. So it does things like requires universities to remove any diversity, equity, or inclusion DEI practices from their hiring processes, and also requires them to remove any degree, whether they're major or minor, in things like critical race theory, gender studies, and the like. It also clarifies that Gen Ed courses can't be based around CRT or gender theory or anything under that umbrella, but it does not preclude those kinds of courses to be offered as elective credits. It requires the Board of Governors, which is the state university systems governing body, to ensure that universities that have these as majors or minors get rid of those. And there's a plan around the timeline of that. UWF currently doesn't have any majors or minors in those, so we're not necessarily affected by that over here. But there may be other universities in Florida who have to do some serious thinking about their degree offerings.

Averhart: And it did pass committee this week.

Witbracht: It passed the Post Secondary Education committee on Monday. There were over 100 speakers signed up to speak on behalf of that bill, and they kept every speaker at 30 seconds. There were over 250 people in the room, and then another 100 plus waiting outside. So, it garnered some serious attention in the legislature, and it was a busy day at the Capitol.

Averhart: With our remaining time, let's talk about one other education bill, and that would be SB 958.

Witbracht: Senate Bill 958 also goes along under the same premise of HB 999, and then last year's, HB 7. It would require universities to remove political loyalty tests from hiring and admissions. But the funny thing is, when the sponsor presented that in committee during the first week of session, he was asked by a member if there were any institutions that use these, and he couldn't name any. So I find that a little interesting. And it also would require universities to host speakers on campus across "widely held views," and it would require universities to subsidize their travel. So it'd be interesting to see how we would do that, in effect, operationally what constitutes a widely held view. The sponsor could not tell us exactly what that meant.

Averhart: Let's look ahead to what's coming up in the coming days in the legislature.

Witbracht: I think some of the biggest topics that we're going to see over the 2023 legislative session are affordable housing, school choice through twelve hurricane. Uh, resiliency is going to be big. We have a lot of pretty powerful members in the House and the Senate from the southwest Florida area. So they just experienced a horrible hurricane. So I think those are three topics that we are going to see exhaustively over the next 60 days. We also in higher education, are hoping to see some flexibility in the way that we use our reserves. Um, that's something that we have been advocating for for years now. We've been told that that is a definite possibility. That would give us a lot of flexibility on how we operate on campus. So we're looking forward to that.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.
Rachel Witbracht serves as the Director of Government Relations at the University of West Florida. In this role, Rachel manages local, state and federal relationships, tracks and analyzes public policy and budgetary events, and acts as the university’s chief lobbyist. During her time at the university, she has fostered key associations with local and state actors that heighten UWF’s presence in Northwest Florida and the State of Florida as a whole.