With the clock ticking down on the special session, legislators are looking to avoid missing another deadline for university infrastructure projects—and they need Gov. Perry’s help.
A bipartisan group of Texas House members have publicly asked Gov. Rick Perry to add tuition revenue bonds (TRBs), the funding process for new campus construction at Texas universities, to the agenda for the current special session of the Texas Legislature. In a letter sent to the governor Monday, 69 House members called on the governor to allow them to pass a bond package, citing what they called historically low interest rates, and the critical need at public institutions.
Both chambers approved bills providing $2.7 billion in funding for a host of construction projects across the state, but were unable to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions before time ran out. Perry must add TRBs to the legislative agenda in order for them to be considered during the 30-day special session that began May 27.
While it’s historically been assumed that construction bonds will pass every other legislature—that is, every four years—Texas has failed to pass TRBs since a 2006 special session. If they aren’t considered in the coming weeks, it will be nearly a decade between the last bond package passed and the next legislative session in 2015.
For UT-Austin, the legislature could provide up to a third of the nearly $300 million cost of the direly needed Engineering Education and Research Center. The upgrades to current engineering facilities would include 430,000 square feet of flexible teaching and research space. UT officials hope the new facility will encourage cross-disciplinary interaction, modernize teaching, and create a greater sense of community in the Cockrell School. The new home to the college’s largest major—electrical and computer engineering—will be built in greater harmony with nearby Waller Creek and replace the cramped corridors and 1960s-era infrastructure of the Engineering Sciences Building.
Bills for bond projects have already been filed by multiple lawmakers, including Amarillo Republican Sen. Kel Seliger, who serves as higher education chair, and Austin Democrats Kirk Waston in the Senate and Donna Howard in the House. House higher education chair Dan Branch, Republican of Dallas, has also filed a version of Seliger’s bill. All four proposals include funding for UT’s EERC. Other legislators, like Jacksonville Republican Sen. Robert Nichols, have filed legislation for specific projects in their district.
The state’s construction drought comes as other states continue to make improvement to their public universities. State governments in Georgia, New Jersey, and Virginia have pushed for major campus infrastructure projects in recent months. Higher education experts, including the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, also anticipate competitive challenges to Texas colleges from foreign countries making strong investments in colleges and universities.
“This seems to be the right time,” says Coordinating Board spokesman Dominic Chavez. He notes that many see enrollment growth, cheap construction costs, and the drive to improve Texas’ national research reputation as strong incentives for legislators to “strike while the iron is hot.”
Notably, infrastructure projects similar to TRBs may have been given a chance in the special session. Perry added transportation infrastructure along with other topics to the session Monday, which previously only considered redistricting. The governor is expected to leave Texas for New York and Connecticut on a four-day trip starting Sunday June 16. His office has not indicated whether Perry intends to add items to the agenda.
Spokesman Josh Havens would not speculate, saying only that “the only issues on the call include redistricting; transportation; regulation of abortion procedures, providers and facilities; and sentences for capital felonies committed by 17 year old offenders.”
Read the original letter below.
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Photo courtesy Phil Roeder via Flickr Creative Commons.
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