All About That Base (Funding) and More: Reviewing the 2015 Texas Legislature

 

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On Monday, the Texas Legislature ended its 84th regular session. After 140 days of committee meetings, testimony, debate, amendment, and occasionally, bill-passing, the gavels sounded in the House and Senate, members shook hands and posed for some celebratory pictures, and venues around downtown began preparing for the customary end-of-session parties.

Unlike previous sessions, this year’s was not a nail-biter. Both chambers adjourned without any last-minute fireworks. There were few fiery debates and no all-night filibusters, although there was occasional tension between the House and the Senate. As a matter of fact, the legislature officially ended its work several hours ahead of schedule. Lawmakers agreed on a relatively small number of bills—1,323, according to the Houston Chroniclethe fewest since 1995.

So what does that mean for higher education and for UT? Let’s take a look at how the issues affecting the University of Texas and championed by the Texas Exes fared. It’s worth noting that, with few exceptions, these bills still await the governor’s signature.

Base funding for UT got a boost—but not a big one

The university got a boost to its base funding—the money appropriated by the state for its basic functions—of about 4.5 percent. Of course, when adjusted for inflation, UT’s base funding has decreased by more than 40 percent since the mid-1980s. Still, a boost is a boost.

At the beginning of the session, talk of re-regulating tuition was in the air. Back in 2003, the legislature gave up its power to set maximum tuition rates at state universities, and some under the dome tried to advance bills that would bring back that regulatory power in response to rising tuition across the state. Others, like Senate higher education chairman Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) and House chairman John Zerwas (R-Richmond) aimed at setting requirements institutions would have to meet for state funding; not exactly re-regulation, but something close.

In the end, however, none of the bills finished the process, and tuition is still at the discretion of each institution—and still not tethered to any requirements beyond the existing size-based formula.

For the first time in nearly a decade, funding for construction projects was approved

Building new facilities on a Texas college campus isn’t an easy thing. Aside from shaking donor trees with Herculean might, higher education officials have only the complicated mechanism known as tuition revenue bonds to rely on. The process, confusingly, does not involve tuition money, but relies on the legislature to provide debt service from general revenue, which in turn allows for the construction of new labs, dorms, and just about anything else.

But while legislators had previously agreed to revisit the capital construction funding process every other session in response to the needs of ever-growing institutions across the state, policymakers have been unable to pass a construction funding package since way back in 2006. In 2013, both chambers passed legislation related to capital construction, but failed to agree on a compromise between their two versions of the bill.

This session, it fared better, with the legislature passing an omnibus bill to fund projects from Lubbock to Brownsville.

UT had hoped for $100 million for much-needed renovations to Welch Hall, home of the chemistry department and a major campus building that 10,000 students pass through each class day. In the end, the legislature agreed to fund $75 million for the project.

Support for research is growing

Big changes are afoot for state programs dealing with university research, and that’s not a bad thing.

The aforementioned chairmen, Seliger and Zerwas, rebuilt the research funding structures this session. The Texas Competitive Knowledge and Research Development Funds are out, and three new funds are in. The Texas Research University Fund will provide a $1.2 million investment for every $10 million in research expenditures at UT-Austin and Texas A&M, up from the Competitive Knowledge Fund’s $1 million. The Core Research Support Fund will support emerging institutions, and the Comprehensive Research Fund will cover the rest of the colleges and universities in Texas.

Preexisting matching funds will also now include undergraduate research as well as graduate research, and the new Governor’s University Research Initiative adds $40 million to help universities attract world-class researchers. Governor Abbott, BBA ’81, Life Member, signed the Governor’s University Research Initiative into law on the UT campus Thursday.

Governance structures may get some updating

Three bills by state Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo), BS ’67, MA ’70, PhD ’78, Life Member, Distinguished Alumna, clarify the training process for regents, require the online broadcast of meeting, and define the selection process for student members of a board of regents.

The Hazlewood Act, which provides tuition for veterans and their families, gained a lot of attention this session, as universities are struggling to keep up with the costs of an unfunded mandate. Despite the talk, legislators did not take action.

The Top 10 percent law sticks around, and so does its cap at UT-Austin

Back in 2009, the chancellor of the UT System and president of UT-Austin appealed to legislators for help. The Top 10 Percent Law, which allows Texas high schoolers who graduate in the top 10 percent of their class to be automatically admitted to state colleges, was overwhelming UT. If something wasn’t done, all of UT’s students would be selected by a single criterion defined by the legislature. A cap was put in place that limited the automatic admissions to 75 percent of each incoming class and preserved some flexibility for the university.

That cap was set to expire under a sunset provision, putting UT back in the precarious situation of being unable to select any of its students using its own metrics. But a bill by chairman Zerwas did away with the sunset provision, allowing UT to continue filling its incoming classes from the top 1 percent down until the 75 percent cap is full; the remaining 25 percent will continue to be reviewed and selected holistically.

Campus carry passed, but how it’s implemented is yet to be seen

With considerable media attention, the legislature passed a so-called campus carry bill, allowing licensed gun owners to carry concealed firearms on campus. Private colleges, however, may completely exempt themselves.

It’s a bit more complicated for public institutions like UT. University presidents, along with students, will work with regents to determine gun-free zones intended for medical and childcare facilities. You can hear more from UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven in his interview with NPR. The bill is expected to take effect in August 2016.

Photo by Crashworks.

 

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