Is the Texas Senate balancing its budget on the back of higher ed?


The Senate’s budget would cut $332.7 million from universities, state colleges and technical schools.

The Texas Exes says the situation amounts to “systematic divestment of public higher education in this state.”

Facing a tight budget outlook and unwilling to raise taxes or tap a multibillion-dollar rainy day fund, state Senate Republicans looking for areas to make big cuts have hit a wall in almost every major spending category.

Most health care funding is tied up in federal mandates. Significant cuts to K-12 education funding would be politically untenable. The Department of Public Safety is bolstered by the GOP dedication to border security spending.

The state’s public colleges and universities, however, appear to be an easier target.

Colleges and universities are hit hard under the Senate’s proposal, including a 10 percent cut in core state aid to the University of Texas at Austin, leading some higher education leaders and advocates to question whether Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the upper chamber, intends to balance the budget on the back of higher education.

Under the House’s budget proposals, which involve tapping the rainy day fund, higher education institutions face a smaller cut, but one that still falls short of their growing needs.

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“This is a continuing, systematic divestment of public higher education in this state, mostly in the Senate. It’s more severe than it ever has been,” said Will O’Hara, interim co-executive director of the Ex-Students’ Association of the University of Texas, an independent nonprofit also known as the Texas Exes that has been monitoring the evolution of the proposed budget.

Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said that, unlike with some other spending areas, lawmakers have “flexibility” with funding for public colleges and universities, which she noted “did very well last (legislative) session.”

“We knew we weren’t going to have as much money for any area of the budget, and so it forced us to look at how we were funding higher education, which in turn brought us to the place where we are now and doing things in a new manner,” she said, “and I think it’s a good thing.”

Patrick didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Widespread cuts

The Senate’s initial 2018-19 budget proposal eliminated several hundred million dollars in “special items” — projects such as the University of Texas’ Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas and McDonald Observatory in West Texas. Such projects, most of them intended to be permanent, historically have received line-item allotments every two years because they generally wouldn’t be covered by the schools’ enrollment-oriented base funding.

An outcry ensued, in part because some schools might have to shut down without special item money. UT-Permian Basin, for instance, depends on such money for roughly half of its state funding.

Nelson subsequently unveiled, and the Finance Committee approved Wednesday, a new plan that would spread the pain around by cutting the budgets of the state’s 37 public universities, three state colleges and six state technical colleges by 6 to 10 percent apiece. That would leave the schools as a group facing a cut of $332.7 million, or 7.9 percent.

As a result, UT-Austin’s budget for base funding and special items would be cut by 10 percent, or $47.9 million. What’s more, the university’s Dell Medical School and the UT-Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine, both of which opened last year, would receive no enrollment-based funding, unlike other medical schools in the state.

“UT-Austin relies on state funding for its success, and President (Gregory L.) Fenves will continue working with lawmakers as they finalize the budget,” university spokesman Gary Susswein said. “He looks forward to discussing the needs of UT and higher education.”

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Texas A&M University would see its funding drop by 6 percent, or $29 million, but that reduction is worse than it appears. The reason: A&M’s enrollment has grown by about 4,000 students in the past two years, and the initial Senate bill would have taken that into account and boosted the school’s funding by $16 million, or 3 percent.

“We understand that the state is in a tight place,” said A&M President Michael K. Young, “but I would stress that we have done our very best to use state resources efficiently and effectively on behalf of the young people of the state while keeping tuition among the lowest, and the administrative overhead by far the lowest — 3.6 percent — of any university in the state and maybe the nation. Further cuts to our budget will reduce the number of students that we can serve as well as the number of world-class researchers we attract who are making significant contributions to the diversification and dynamism of the state’s economy.”

Higher education leaders also are troubled by some of the mechanics of the Senate bill. In the past, the Legislature allocated base funding using a formula that takes enrollment and types of courses into account.

“The public policy basis for the formulas has always been to pay for the same type of students — educating engineers, for example — at all institutions at the same rate,” said Laylan Copelin, spokesman for the 12-campus A&M System. “This unprecedented Senate proposal would turn equity on its head, taking money from 12 universities and redistributing it to 20 other universities, for educating the same type of students.”

If the Senate’s plan becomes law, A&M officials say they likely would have to trim the ranks of faculty and staff members and shrink the size of incoming classes to align with the revised funding model.

Texas State University’s funding for the next two years would decline by $10.4 million, or 6 percent, despite enrollment growth. A Texas State spokesman said the university has no comment “at this point.”

Besides cuts to enrollment-based funding and special items, higher education institutions could find their financial options impaired in other ways. Several measures in the Senate would limit or withdraw the tuition-setting authority lawmakers ceded to university governing boards in 2003. House leaders, on the other hand, don’t seem nearly as interested in clamping down on tuition. Neither chamber’s budget keeps up with rising demand for student financial aid.

Abbott’s goals at risk

Running for governor in 2014, Greg Abbott vowed to help elevate five Texas schools into U.S. News & World Report’s top 10 public universities, which includes six schools from California and none from the Lone Star State. But as the Senate looks at adopting a budget with serious cuts to UT and A&M, Abbott has been largely absent from the public debate.

The governor has, however, urged lawmakers to allocate $40 million to the Governor’s University Research Initiative for the next two years. Established two years ago with a $40 million budget, it has been used to recruit nine top-flight researchers to UT, A&M and the University of Houston. The proposed House and Senate budgets provide no money for the initiative.

“Gov. Abbott believes that in order for Texas to compete in a 21st century economy, investing in higher education must be a priority for our state,” said his spokesman, John Wittman. “He will continue to work with both the House and the Senate to ensure our public universities have the resources they need to provide the best education possible for Texas’ future workforce.”

House Speaker Joe Straus, meanwhile, has cited limiting the damage to higher education as a top reason lawmakers should tap the state’s rainy day fund, which is the largest of its kind in the country and is projected to reach $12 billion by the end of the next legislative session.

“We’ve thoughtfully reduced funding in higher education in the House budget,” Straus said. “We’re cutting spending, but there’s a limit to how deeply into the bone we’re going to go, or want to.”

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