Anti-Tax Attacks

The president of the country's largest community college called state legislators bullies. Did he go too far?

April 17, 2014
Miami Dade College President Eduardo Padrón, left, and state Representative Jose Oliva

The head of the nation’s largest community college said aloud what many higher ed leaders mutter in private about tightfisted lawmakers.

“Bullies” and “ideologues,” Miami Dade College President Eduardo Padrón called a few of Florida’s anti-tax legislators.

The comments, made last week to The Miami Herald’s editorial board, weren’t well-received by the state lawmakers, including Representative Jose Oliva, who is in line to become the speaker of the House. Padrón noted that Oliva, who now runs his family’s cigar business, had not finished college and “was born into money” and “has never had to earn a living.”

The college is hoping to get legislative approval to allow Miami-Dade County voters to consider a referendum that would raise the county sales tax. The half-cent tax hike for five years would raise about $1 billion to support the 164,000-student community college. Padrón accused a handful of Republican lawmakers of trying to block the referendum, which polling suggests could pass if county voters ever get the chance to consider it.

Padrón said he regretted the personal comments. The college’s Board of Trustees -- which is appointed by the state governor – is backing Padrón and passed a resolution supporting both the president and pending bills to allow the referendum.

Padrón, one of the most visible higher ed leaders in the country, couldn’t be reached for comment, but the college’s political calculations seem to be simple: county voters should decide for themselves if they want to fund the college, not lawmakers in Tallahassee, the state capital.

“Ironically, many of our students and even the families of these opposing lawmakers have fled dictatorships where they did not have the right to vote, and these lawmakers are doing the same … denying the people an opportunity to decide for themselves,” a college spokesman, Juan C. Mendieta, wrote in an email.

The strong language from the college is unusual, particularly the personal criticism. But it is not unique.

In 2009, Jim Rogers, who was then the chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education, called the state’s then-Governor Jim Gibbons a “greedy, uninterested, unengaged human being whose only, and I mean only, goal is to see what Gibbons can do for himself and his greedy friends.” That volley, which criticized the Republican governor for opposing a tax increase that would help fund education, was far from Rogers’s only sharp remark.

But Rogers’s former protégé and current Chancellor Dan Klaich said Rogers, who owns television stations in the state, was trying to reach a broad audience.

“What we saw in Nevada with the former chancellor is, I think, people generally felt that he understood the issues and he was getting the issues out in front of people in a very blunt way that the run-of-the-mill person understood what the issues were and in many cases identified with them,” Klaich said. “For those the people who were at the point of his spear, it was probably received with a lot less enthusiasm.”

Still, Klaich said his own style is different -- at least most of the time. He said he avoids personal attacks as well as attempts to seize a moral high ground, because neither strategy works well.

It’s unclear how Padrón’s comments will play out in Florida.

Daniel Hurley, who leads the government relations and state policy team at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said he would like to see more assertive presidents.

“I don’t view this as a momentary lapse,” Hurley said. “I see this as hitting a nail on the head in terms of unprecedented, rightful frustration.”

He said community college presidents have been pressed to the point of wanting to shout out in public and call lawmakers to the carpet. He said the obstacles to higher ed funding are typically from the “far right” and are “disturbing.” Hurley wondered where the Florida legislature got the right to deny Miami-Dade County voters a chance to consider the ballot measure.

“If we continue to see legislative behavior like this, it would not surprise me to see more of this,” Hurley said.

In California, as supporters of a statewide ballot initiative to raise taxes mustered forces in 2011, the state’s community colleges also had to wrestle with reluctant Republican lawmakers who could block the ballot measure. The Community College League of California took out ads in the districts of four lawmakers, but league President Scott Lay said the group was careful to avoid personal attacks.

“We never made it personal,” he said. “We never had public materials that these four people are bad people or these four people have students’ lives at the end of their voting pen.”

Instead, the ads said it was “time for voters to decide” and listed the phone numbers of the lawmakers. The goal was to get Republicans to overcome their fears of an electoral challenge by anti-tax opponents and back the ballot initiative. Lay said that privately, Republicans believed the tax increase should be put on the ballot but they were worried about what it would do for their careers.

“The political climate sucks and if we could make the voices from their district louder than the people like Grover Norquist on Twitter, then we’re winning,” Lay said, referring to the kingpin of the anti-tax movement.

The campaign didn’t work in 2011, partly because Democrats also balked. But a year later, Proposition 30 did get on the ballot and narrowly passed, resulting in increased funding for California’s three-part higher education system.

“It was describing the impact of cuts over a several year period of time that got a bare majority to approve the tax increase,” Lay said.


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