Orlando Sentinel by Gabrielle Russon
April 5, 2017
State legislators are pushing for universities and colleges to stop spending millions of taxpayer dollars on private groups that run high-profile programs such as athletics and fund raising and to require them to release records to the public.
The House appropriations committee unanimously voted Wednesday to approve a bill that changes the regulations on direct support organizations. DSOs are private corporations with their own boards that are folded into the public institutions.
The bill, which was approved with little discussion, has yet to be assigned to its next committee.
Many open government advocates criticize DSOs, which unlike public universities, are not transparent since they are exempt from most public records laws. But a University of Central Florida lobbyist warned the bill could hurt a school’s ability to conduct business if the confidential records are made available to the public.
Under the new bill, only information on private donors who wished to be anonymous would remain secret.
UCF lobbyist Dan Holsenbeck warned the bill could undercut DSOs’ ability to collaborate with outside groups.
He pointed to the foundation handling real estate transactions or the athletics department negotiating with prospective coaches as examples where privacy is needed.
“It would make it very difficult — if not impossible — in some cases to do the kind of things DSOs do,” Holsenbeck said, adding he worried that groups might stop doing business with UCF if the bill passed.
“I don’t know why a DSO is so special,” she said. “We’ve been complaining about the exemption of DSOs for quite some time. You think about the amount of money these DSOs are raising and the amount they’re spending is considerable.”
Under the bill, higher education institutions also would no longer be able to spend public money on employee salaries at DSOs.
Across Florida, public universities transferred $53.2 million for personnel and payroll processing for their DSOs, a staff analysis of the bill said.
UCF spent $10.1 million in state funds on the UCF Foundation, the school’s private fundraising arm. It was the second-highest amount behind the University of Florida’s nearly $11.8 million.
State colleges flowed about $9.9 million of taxpayer dollars into their foundations, including about $670,000 at Valencia College and $655,000 at Seminole State College of Florida, the analysis showed.
DSO revenues could come from donations, student housing income, investment profits, license tag sales and other sources, the state analysis said.
Holsenbeck said losing the state money would force the university to find other ways to pay for the foundation employees whose efforts help the school.
“All the universities are pretty much in unison,” Holsenbeck said of their opposition against the bill.
The House has pushed for more transparency this session, unearthing expense reports not previously public from tourism promoters and higher education institutions.
Last month, legislators accused public universities’ foundations of spending extravagantly on overseas trips and on other expenses. [READ MORE]