'Robin Hood' for Higher Ed?

As budget battles in the Legislature heat up, the question of whether or not lawmakers will tap into the Rainy Day Fund continues to be a hot topic of discussion at the capitol – and on the state’s editorial pages. The Eagle this week laid out the case for why lawmakers should access the fund for public and higher education needs, saying the fund should “not be sacrosanct” … “It would be a shame to let our students suffer because of a refusal to dip into the Rainy Day Fund.”

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Read my lips: No More Bills

Friday was the last day for Texas lawmakers to file a bill this legislative session, which brought about an expected flurry of activity. One bill, filed by Rep. J.M. Lozano, would limit higher education benefits for the children of veterans, a controversial issue killed in the 2015 Session. When lawmakers passed the provision (the Hazelwood Act) to allow veterans to pass their benefits to their dependents, it predicted a $10 million price tag – a figure, it turns out, was dramatically underestimated. The cost in 2015 was $178 million and is expected to increase. The state only picks up 20% of the tab, leaving the universities to pay for the rest. Lozano’s bill would limit benefits to veterans who served four years or more, and would expire the benefit 15 years after an honorable discharge, so it would only apply to kids born while their parents were on active duty.

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The Budget, McRaven, SXSW & Rick Perry

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus has encouraged his chamber’s budget writer to dip into the so-called “Rainy Day Fund” to address the state’s budget challenges. This week House Appropriations Chair Rep. John Zerwas filed House Bill 2 that would access $1.4 billion from the fund. “I believe this is a better option than leaving $12 billion sitting in the bank while making deep cuts to higher education and significantly increasing health care premiums on retired teachers,” said Straus. “Our approach keeps spending low but also recognizes some very important priorities and some very real obligations.”

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Budget Cuts, Sexual Assault and Waivers

“Sadly, as a new dean, one of my first decisions was to cut the class size.” That decision, by Carrie Byington, the new dean of the Texas A&M College of Medicine, was based on “substantial funding cuts” looming in the Legislature in both the House and Senate versions of the budget. The cuts create uncertainty, which disrupts planning for the school and future students. Byington also lamented the likely cuts to special item funding, which will impact programs such as Healthy South Texas, an education program that has reached more than 300,000 people since 2015 on topics such as diet, exercise, chronic condition management and Zika prevention.

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Significant Consequences

This week Longhorns and Aggies joined forces at the Capitol to call on Texas Legislators to restore formula funding and support research initiatives, among other priorities. “UT-Austin and Texas A&M really are the two premier universities in the state of Texas,” said UT System Chancellor William McRaven at the eight annual Orange and Maroon Legislative Day. Alumni volunteers visited lawmakers’ offices alongside of the presidents of both institutions, listened in as resolutions were read in both legislative chambers to commemorate the day, and participated in a press conference and a reception to round out the day.

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Latest Updates

  • Big Government, Top 10 Percent and Tom Brady

    In a push to regain more state control of higher education, a number of bills have been introduced this Session that would limit individual institutions’ authority and give power back to The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. The Texas Tribune cited a number of efforts from tuition increases to regional expansions and new programs, which have made lawmakers rethink a 2013 move that limited the powers of the Coordinating Board under the belief that individual institutions could best make decisions about their campuses. Raymund Paredes, whose office stands to regain old power and add in some new res[responsibilities if some of these bills pass, supports the moves. “We need some oversight,” he said, “and I think the coordinating board was intended to fill that role.”
     
    One of a number of higher education bills passed by the Senate this week included a revision to the top 10 percent law, which would allow all universities (not just UT Austin) to cap at 30 percent the number of students admitted under the law. This bill is a step back from earlier efforts to repeal it altogether, in what State Sen. Kel Seliger, higher ed chair and the bill’s author, said was a response to “political realities.” Some lawmakers have expressed concern that eliminating the automatic admissions policy would have an adverse impact on diversity. But Seliger has questioned if this is a proper role for the state. “Is it the role of government to run the admissions department of any university?” he said. “It’s just another example of big government.”
     
    One of the nine researchers headed to Texas as a result of the Governor’s University Research Initiative (GURI) is chemical engineering professor Joan Brennecke, who UT Austin was able to recruit from Notre Dame. Brennecke specializes in researching how to make fossil fuels “greener” and will bring with her a lab, equipment, and endless possibilities for innovation and commercialization that will attract new talent and industry to Texas. “It is really amazing that [GURI] exists,” Brennecke said. “I don’t know of any other states where the state is committed to attracting top people into their academic institutions and is committed to doing that by putting their money behind what they say.” However, the Legislature has neglected to fund GURI for the next biennium, something that may change when House and Senate budget negotiators begin meeting in the coming weeks.
     
    John Sharp may be on track to be the Texas A&M System’s longest serving chancellor. His contract isn’t up until 2020, but this week regents have submitted a proposal to extend his contract through 2023. The proposal does not include a pay increase. Citing the “tough decisions” the Legislature is making about university budgets, the regents cite transparency and consistency of leadership as important for the system moving forward. Using a professional sports analogy, [Regent Charles] Schwartz said the extension is an opportunity to "lock in a high performer at the current level." "The Patriots don't get to do that with Tom Brady, and we have an opportunity to do so," Schwartz said.
     
    Both the House and Senate have introduced legislation aimed at reducing teen pregnancy by requiring state institutions of higher education to “develop and implement a strategic plan for the prevention of sexual assault and unplanned pregnancy.” The legislation is based on similar efforts in Mississippi and Arkansas, which rank number one and three respectively, when it comes to teen pregnancy. Texas has the fifth highest rate of teen pregnancy nationally, a statistic, which has long term impacts on our economy. “If we want an educated workforce in Texas, students have to stay in school to get an education. And the reality is that the burden of being a teen parent makes that nearly impossible.”

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  • “Eating Your Seed Corn”

    Ahead of conference committees to hammer out differences between the House and Senate budgets, Columnists and editorial writers around the state have been lambasting the deep cuts to higher education proposed in the Senate version. Chris Tomlinson of the Houston Chronicle wrote, “The technical term is ‘eating your seed corn.’ That's what Texas state senators proposed when they voted to gut public universities, drive away talented scientists and stunt the future workforce …” The San Antonio Express-News wrote, “Higher education is an investment with the potential for tremendous returns for students and the state. It’s a false calculation to think reducing higher education funding is in the best interest of a state looking to grow its economy.”

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