by BRAD ROLLINS
Officials at Texas State, and at universities across the state, are hoping a flick of Gov. Rick Perry’s pen will resurrect a package of campus construction bonds that died late Sunday night during the final, chaotic hours of the Legislature’s regular session.
Long-shot Senate bill allows $211.7M for construction at Texas State University System institutions
A campus construction bonds bill filed on Monday by Sen. Kel Seliger, the Amarillo Republican who chairs the Senate’s Higher Education committee, includes $211.7 million for the Texas State University System. That’s a decrease of $1.9 million from a bill the House approved earlier this month and a decrease of $12.3 million over the Senate’s version of the bill. At this point, however, university officials across the state are ready to take whatever they can get should campus construction become fair game for an ongoing special session on redistricting.
Here are the Texas State University System allowances included in Seliger’s bill:
Not since 2006 have lawmakers authorized university systems to borrow money secured by future tuition revenue to pay for new facilities and other big-ticket capital improvement projects.
This session, the Senate approved a bill that allowed universities to sell more than $2.4 billion in bonds for building projects, including $139 million for Texas State University and another $85 million for other institutions in the Texas State University System. The House version of the bill totaled $2.7 billion, though Texas State’s share shrunk by $20.9 million. Both bills died, however, when the Senate declined to approve the House version and the House ignored a request from the Senate to appoint a conference committee to reconcile differences in the two bills.
For now, the bills — and all the university construction they would have paid for — appear dead, unless Perry adds campus construction to the charge given to a 30-day special session already underway with the single objective, so far, of redistricting Texas House and Senate districts. Champions of the construction projects say they do not know what to expect from the governor but — unless or until he says “no” — tuition revenue bonds have not crossed the Styx.
“I never say ‘die.’ People who like me call me relentless and people who don’t like me call me relentless. … We will try our best to get the governor to add it to the call,” said Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, the vice chair and former chair of the Senate’s Higher Education committee. The senator’s district includes large chunk of San Marcos that stops a few blocks short of Texas State’s main campus and most of the rest of Hays County east of Interstate 35.
Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, filed a campus construction bond bill on Monday along the lines of legislation already okayed by both chambers. Since, however, it falls outside the scope of the special session — a scope Perry has the sole power to set — neither chamber will be able to consider campus construction projects without the governor’s pre-approval.
Perry has not determined yet whether he will add campus construction, or any other additional subjects, to the special session’s call, Perry spokesperson Lucy Nashed told the San Marcos Mercury this morning.
“The governor wants to focus on redistricting right now,” said Nashed, who added that the governor’s office is still reviewing 1,436 bills passed by both the House and Senate during the regular session. If Perry decides to enlarge the special session’s purview he can do so at any point during the 30 days of the called session, Nashed said.
State Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, said Friday morning that he has no inside insight into whether campus construction bonds will be revisited. He did say he expects the governor to add to the special session’s call and, in fact, expected it would have already happened.
“I keep watching and thinking we’ll hear more. I’m surprised that we haven’t seen anything added yet,” Isaac said.
The Seliger bill includes $211 million for Texas State University System projects at Texas State University in San Marcos and Round Rock; Lamar University and Lamar Institute of Technology in Beaumont, Lamar State Colleges in both Orange and Port Arthur; Sam Houston State in Huntsville and Sul Ross State in Alpine. The Seliger bill includes $70.6 million for an Engineering and Science Building in San Marcos and $47.6 for medical education and lab building in Round Rock — millions less than what university President Denise Trauth’s administration wanted but tens of millions more than it’s presently on course to get.
Texas State officials consider the San Marcos engineering and Round Rock medical buildings critical to rapidly growing programs in occupational areas — engineering and health care — identified as strategic priorities for Texas’ higher education system.
Without a new engineering and science building, Texas State will have to cap at current levels the number of engineering undergraduate students it can accept and will be delayed in starting a civil engineering program to add to its current offerings, said William Nance, Texas State’s vice president for finance and support services. Undergraduate enrollment in the College of Science, which includes engineering and commercialization programs, increased from 2,718 to 4,317 between 2002 and 2013.
The building is currently estimated to cost $91.6 million and was funded in Zaffirini’s original campus construction bill at $83 million. At this point, Nance said, the university would be quite satisfied with the $73.3 million provided in the House bill.
“We’d have to come up with another $10 million but certainly $73 million is a lot better than zero,” Nance said earlier this week. (Seliger’s bill pares the appropriation down further to $70.6 million so that’s actually another $12.4 million the university would have to “come up with.”)
Even if the Legislature fails to pass tuition revenue bonds at all, Texas State will identify whatever funding it can to build a more modest version of Engineering and Science Building at Comanche and Woods streets in San Marcos. The Applied Health building in Round Rock is not likely to happen in any form without tuition revenue bonds, Nance said.
Zaffirini, who has been trying to muscle and cajole campus construction bonds through the Legislature since the last time she did so seven years ago, says she does not know, or leastwise is not saying, what confusion or connivance led to the late-hour death of her legislation.
In 27 years in the Senate — longer than nearly any of her colleagues — Zaffirini said she cannot recall another instance where the House flatly failed to acknowledge a request from the Senate to name a conference committee except in cases where a bill’s author concurred with the other chamber’s version and withdrew a request for a conference.
“Those difference could easily have been worked out in a conference committee. Easily. I cannot explain to you why it did not happen. I have no idea,” Zaffirini said.
As the primary sponsor for the House bill, it would have fallen on State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, to submit a written request to House leadership asking that conferees be named to negotiate with senators, Zaffirini said. She said she did not know if Branch failed to ask for a conference committee or if he did ask for one and conferees were nonetheless never appointed. Branch has not returned phone calls made to his office and to staff for the House Higher Education Committee, which he chairs.
With time running out this weekend, senators and representatives “tried mightily,” Zaffirini said, to hammer out a compromise bill that could pass muster as “technical correction” and slide through to the governor’s desk. But the $300 million difference between the Senate and House version made the settlement too significant to be considered “technical.”
“It would have been intellectually dishonest for us to call the agreement we worked out ‘technical.’ And it would have been subject to a point of order and a point of order would have been raised” in both the House and Senate, Zaffirini said.
4:41 p.m. FRIDAY, MAY 31: Gov. Rick Perry is leaving the door open for more items on the agenda of the newly called special legislative session, but he said Friday he wants lawmakers to bring him specific proposals that have a chance of passage before putting more on their plate.
“We’re not going to be adding things to the call just for the sake of adding things to the call,” Perry said. “We want to be relatively assured that we’re going to be successful.”
The governor, speaking to reporters at an event highlighting the state’s emergency response capabilities, was asked if he would consider adding to the agenda a fix for the troubled Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, or TWIA, the state’s insurer of last resort for coastal residents.
Perry said that was “certainly possible,” but added that he wanted lawmakers to “get a little closer to what I would consider to be an agreement” before he’ll add the item to the agenda.
While the governor signaled it was “still a little premature” to speculate about expanding the session beyond redistricting — the only issue eligible for action right now — he said other priorities may soon emerge.
— JAY ROOT/THE TEXAS TRIBUNE