Updates from Austin
Updates from the Texas Legislative Session April 3, 2015.
There has been significant work done on the Texas budget over the last several months. The House passed their version of the budget, HB 1, and has sent it to the Senate for consideration. The Senate passed their version of the budget, SB 2, out of the Senate Finance committee and will consider it on the floor of the Senate next week. As always, there is significant differences between the House and Senate versions which will be ironed out in the conference committee. Both the House and the Senate have increased the state contribution per Semester Credit Hour to state universities, but at different levels. The House has increased base funding per Semester Credit Hour from $54.86 to $56.08. The Senate has increased the rate per Semester Hour Credit from $54.86 to $56.69. We are appreciative that our legislators have identified that universities need more state support so that we are not forced to pay for the rising cost of higher education through increases in tuition. While this is a step in the right direction, we continue to ask for a return to the 2010-11 biennium rate of $62.19 per Semester Credit Hour.
House Appropriations Chairman John Otto has proposed a significant change in how the state appropriates research to the University of Houston and the other “Emerging Research Universities”, which would combine the Competitive Knowledge Fund and the Research Development Fund. The effect of this change would be that UH would no longer receive appropriation from the same fund as UT-Austin and TAMU-College Station through the Texas Competitive Knowledge Fund. While we appreciate efforts by Chairman Otto to increase appropriations for research, we continue to be concerned that UH will be placed in a second tier state research fund that is not appropriate for UH, a Tier One Research University. There has not yet been a hearing on this legislation, HB 1000 by Chairman John Zerwas, but we will make the case that this change will be harmful for the future of our university.
The Higher Education Fund (HEF) provides funding to universities for building construction and maintenance, technology upgrades, and library books and materials. The amounts appropriated to universities must be reauthorized every ten years and needs reauthorization this session. The University of Houston, along with all other University Systems, have requested a 50% increase in this allocation. The House Appropriations Committee did not appropriate an increase to universities for this fund while the Senate Finance Committee authorized a 50% increase to the fund. The House version of the reauthorization is HB 2848 by Rep. Myra Crownover. The Senate’s version is SB 1191. Each of these bills have been passed out of the committees. We will continue to make the case that this is a critical item for the future of Higher Education.
First, there has been a rebranding of what has been formerly called Tuition Revenue Bonds (TRBs). These bonds will now be called University Capitol Construction Bonds (UCCs) to more accurately reflect what these are used to accomplish.
We continue to hear strong support throughout the Capitol for authorizing state debt service on capital projects for state universities. The UH System has requested authorization for seven new buildings throughout our System, including authorization for the Health and Biomedical Sciences Center 2 Building and a new Academic Building at our Sugar Land campus. Last week, House Higher Education Chairman John Zerwas, M.D., a University of Houston graduate, was able to gain approval for the legislation, HB 100, authorizing all seven projects from his committee. We are thankful for Chairman Zerwas’ leadership on this important issue and the leadership of the members of his committee who recognized the need for new buildings on our campuses.
The Senate Committee on Higher Education, led by Chairman Kel Seliger, held their own hearing on University Capitol Construction this week. Chancellor Khator, testified as to the specific needs of each UH System campus. After receiving all of the testimony, the committee passed their own version of the bill, SB 150, with one dissenting vote.
While students and faculty at UH have consistently opposed legislation that would allow concealed handguns on our campuses, Senate Bill 11 passed out of the Texas Senate last week. In the past, this legislation had been stopped in the Senate when 21 votes were required to debate legislation. The Senate rules were changed at the beginning of this session to require only 19 votes for debate on a bill, thus paving the way for the passage of this legislation. The bill now heads to the House of Representatives where we expect that it is likely to receive enough support for passage to the Governor. If passed, this legislation will take effect September 1 of this year.
Hobby School of Public Affairs:
The University of Houston has requested start up funding to support development of the Hobby School of Public Affairs. Chairman Otto included this item in the filed version on his budget bill, HB 1; it passed in both the committee and the House floor with $4 million in funding for this important initiative. The Senate Committee on Finance has not authorized the requested $4 million appropriation in the current version of their bill, SB 2.
The University of Houston has made closing the funding gap for Pharmacy schools at general academic institutions (GAIs) a priority for the past two sessions, which receives 50% of the per semester credit hour allocation as compared to similar schools at health related institutions (HRIs). The current Senate budget, SB 2, does maintain a $4 million line item directed to UH to help make up this gap, while the House budget, HB 1, has slashed this funding. Nevertheless, we believe there is greater awareness of the problem and we continue to work diligently to create a long term solution this legislative session. This is will be an item that will be discussed in the Appropriations Bill conference committee.