The University of Texas System would be spared from having to lay off about a third of its more than 600 employees under the proposed two-year state budget crafted by Texas House and Senate negotiators.
But other spending restrictions — regarding board travel, food and meeting expenses, as well as investigations of the 15 academic and health campuses — would be imposed on the UT System.
The restrictions reflect sharp criticism of the Board of Regents by many legislators from both parties. House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst have made it clear that they believe the board has crossed the line from policymaking into micromanagement of the Austin flagship campus and its president, Bill Powers. The board and Powers have clashed on tuition, fundraising, open records, faculty productivity and other matters in a falling-out that has persisted for more than two years.
The possibility of layoffs — most of the system’s employees work in downtown Austin — has loomed since early April, when the House amended its version of the 2014-15 budget to prohibit the spending of higher education endowment proceeds on UT System administration. System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa had warned that a $41.4 million cut would result, putting about a third of the system’s 622 employees out of work.
Under the latest version of the budget measure, Senate Bill 1, the UT System would retain its access to endowment proceeds and wouldn’t have to resort to massive layoffs.
However, the system couldn’t spend endowment proceeds on board travel, food and meeting expenses. That prohibition wouldn’t apply to board functions that are required by law or to reimbursements for the student regent.
In addition, the system couldn’t cover travel and other expenses for a regent who hadn’t been confirmed by the Senate. Also, system officials would be barred from spending any money to investigate campuses or their executive management without first notifying the Legislative Budget Board.
Considerably harsher restrictions were adopted by the House in early April at the behest of its chief budget writer, state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, who had accused the UT board of engaging in a witch hunt to oust Powers. One amendment by Pitts would have barred UT System investigations of its campuses altogether. That came after the regents voted to commission an outside investigation of the UT-Austin School of Law and a nonprofit group that donates money to the school. Legislators considered such an investigation unnecessary, and the regents later agreed to have Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott investigate instead.
Another amendment, filed jointly by Pitts and state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, would have cut funding for UT System administration by $23.5 million for the biennium. That sum would have been “trusteed” to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which could transfer the money to the system only upon written approval by the Legislative Budget Board and the governor’s office. That provision was dropped in the latest version of SB 1, on which the House and Senate still must vote.
UT System officials declined to comment.