TALLAHASSEE , Fla. — A bill that would permanently expand merit scholarships and terminate free speech zones on public college campuses in Florida sits on Gov. Rick Scott’s desk.
Scott has until March 21 to act on SB 4, known as the “Excellence in Higher Education Act.”
Introduced by State Sen. Bill Galvano, a Republican, the bill "expands merit-based and need-based student financial aid and establishes flexible tuition policies that incentivize on-time graduation through increased flexibility and cost-saving benefits for students".
The legislation reinstates full funding of the Bright Futures Florida Academic Scholars award at 100 percent of tuition and fees, plus $300 in fall and spring semesters to cover instructional materials and other costs, beginning in this 2017-2018 academic year. "The legislation also reinstates funding for the Bright Futures Florida Medallion Scholars award at 75 percent of tuition and fees for fall and spring semesters, beginning in the fall semester of the 2018-2019 academic year," according to the Florida Senate.
Many Floridians depend on Bright Futures, a lottery-funded scholarship, to attend college within the state.
State Rep. Amber Mariano, who was first elected at age 21 while a Florida college student, calls the act a "game changer" for Florida students.
“It was such an honor to advocate and vote for this legislation during my first term serving in the Florida House of Representatives. We are making huge strides toward keeping the best and brightest students in Florida! I look forward to seeing the governor sign off on this legislation,” Mariano told Red Alert Politics.
A similar initiative was vetoed by Scott last year, after he objected to provisions favoring four-year universities at the expense of Florida’s 28 community colleges. The new bill does not contain those provisions and includes new language on free speech zones. Sen. Galvano says lawmakers worked with Scott’s office on the measure this year, according to News Service Florida.
A coalition of “intersectional” student activists lobbied against the original version which gave students whose First Amendment rights were violated on campus recourse in the form of compensatory damages. Although the bill set a $100,000 cap on compensatory damages per violation, detractors viewed the clause as an invitation for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of lawsuits. The United Faculty of Florida and the ACLU of Florida also opposed the bill, arguing that it would suppress counterprotests.
“Campuses are supposed to be a place of intellectual diversity, where students exchange ideas and hone critical thinking skills. This cannot happen when thoughts and ideas are suppressed,” Gen Sanchez, a Tallahassee Community College student who’s spent numerous hours lobbying on behalf of the eradication of free speech zones, told Red Alert Politics.
A large campaign is mounting for Scott to seal the deal and sign the legislation. Students across the state are calling the governor's office.
Students also attended a press conference alongside State Sen. Dennis Baxley and State Reps. Rommel, Ahern, and Clemons on Friday morning to celebrate the pending re-confirmation of students’ rights on campus.