With Time Short, Zaffirini Pushes for Campus Construction

The fierce higher education advocate explains how broadly supported campus-construction projects could still come to fruition.

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Describing the process of writing her bill, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo), BS ’67, MA ’70, PhD ’78, Life Member, Distinguished Alumna, hoists a heavy, black three-ring binder onto her desk. The binder—which is festooned with red tabs, yellow Post-it notes, and her own handwritten notes—is filled with a 160-page report from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board that outlines the dozens of requests for repairs, renovations, and new construction projects at public institutions of higher education across the state. The report ranks the projects from lowest to highest priority, which could help legislators decide if they want to fund the projects partially—or at all.

It’s a project that’s been years in the making, but without swift action, it may be lost for the foreseeable future. The legislature’s current special session, scheduled to end early next week, is stalled on the topic of transportation. Until legislators deal with roads, campus construction can’t even be considered, much less approved by both chambers. With time running out, Zaffirini is still confident it can be done. She’s seen it done before.

“[Senate Bill 40] will be fabulous for creating jobs and boosting the economy through an economic multiplier,” she says. The proposed bill would aid universities and health institutions in building new classrooms, labs, libraries, and more. The projects are funded by tuition revenue bonds, which have traditionally been offset by legislative appropriations, though the state does not directly pay-off the debt. Legislators established an unofficial agreement that TRB bills would be considered every other legislative session, but that agreement has since fallen apart.

I believe in never giving up,” she says, “and we can never give up the quest for TRBs.

In 2005, Zaffirini and state Rep. Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria) shepherded bond legislation through their respective chambers, only to see the bills hamstrung at the end of the regular session. Then, as now, Gov. Rick Perry called a special session, and held all other topics until his main concern—then school finance, now transportation—was addressed. He finally added TRBs to the agenda, or “call,” when time was running out in the session, much like it is now.

“I believe that he added it to the call at something like 9:30 p.m. on Thursday,” she remembers, “when the last day was [the following] Tuesday.”

And the Sunday in between, she recalls, was Mother’s Day. Morrison had already worked to pass the measure in the House. By the time Perry added the issue to the call, the Senate just needed to work out the differences and approve it. Working through the holiday, the Senate passed the bill. Despite attempts in 2009 and 2011, that flurry of activity seven years ago was the last time the legislature voted to offset the bonds for new campus construction.

This year, even with bipartisan support in both chambers, TRBs are still in legislative limbo. Though the House and Senate passed similar omnibus legislation during the regular session, the House refused to grant a conference committee to iron out the differences.

In the second special session, three statewide TRB bills have been filed, including Zaffirini’s SB40. It’s the byproduct of her exhaustive binder building, which includes each senator’s notes on the projects proposed in their district, and a strict formula on how much to fund each project.

Zaffirini developed her formula on the coordinating board analysis and her personal consultations with university system chancellors and independent university presidents. With a few exceptions, her bill limits the projects to one per institution, and funds them at the lowest of three options: the original request, a revised request from administrators, or the original request minus a percentage based on the coordinating board rank.

Though there have been few vocal critics of TRBs in the legislature, some believe the bonds would incur unnecessary debt and result in increased tuition. Zaffirini counters that the immediate economic impact of construction, new jobs, and the long term effect of the new facilities—what she calls a “multiplier effect”—would benefit the state, not hurt it, and that TRBs don’t result in increased tuition, since tuition never actually factors into the equation.

“The fact of the matter is that this is a good time to make an investment in higher education, particularly in the area of construction,” she says, noting as others have, current low interest rates.

Though time may be running short, Zaffirini says she’s hopeful her fellow legislators can work with the governor to pass the bonds after years of hard work and broad agreement.

Pointing to increased enrollment, student success, and safety concerns, as well as lower building costs, Zaffirini is pushing as hard as ever to see TRBs succeed. The morning of our interview, UT’s Engineering Science Building was evacuated due to a problem with a faulty air handler unit. That building is scheduled to be replaced, if the University’s TRB request succeeds.

Zaffirini hopes that her bill can pass committee and be “parked,” waiting to move to the floor once TRBs are on the agenda—the same maneuver the legislature used in the 2006 special session. With 18 authors and co-authors—about 60 percent of the Senate—Zaffirini’s confident her measure can make it out of the Senate, and hopefully that any funding differences can be worked out with the House quickly.

“I believe in never giving up,” she says, “and we can never give up the quest for TRBs.”

Editor’s Note: The Texas Exes supports tuition revenue bonds legislation. You can read the Texas Exes’ legislative priorities here.

 

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