Agenda Texas: Higher Education Missing Construction Bonds
Everything was going so well for higher education during the 2013 legislative session. With less than a week left in the session, House Higher Education committee chairman Dan Branch (R-Dallas) was pleased.
“I would say that take a look at this budget, and we haven’t completed it yet so I don’t want to be premature, but it looks like we’re going to have a pretty significant investment in higher education," Branch said during an interview last month.
That investment included authorization of several billion dollars in Tuition Revenue Bonds or TRB’s. The bonds are used by state colleges and universities to help finance construction projects.
“I’m very happy right now. Again I don’t want to jinx it. I need to keep acting like I’m unhappy till the end," Branch said.
So, two things: he did jinx it, and he’s still unhappy.
Just a couple of days after announcing his pleasure with the session, the TRB bill died. Leaving schools across the state without that additional money. Reeve Hamilton follows higher education for the Texas Tribune. He said this is just the latest disappointing session for TRB’s.
“It’s not official but they’re sort of expected to pass a TRB package every other session, so that’s every 4 years. And we haven’t had one since 2006. So that’s about 7 years. And if we don’t have one this session or in the special session, we won’t have one for 9 years," Hamilton said.
So what does it mean that schools won’t have this additional source of funds? Well it depends on the school. The University of Texas at Austin was going to use that money to build a new engineering education and research center. Gregory Fenves is dean of the Cockrell School of Engineering that was going to get the new building.
“The facility will be one of the most important student learning environments at UT. On the research side it will provide very unique new types of laboratory facilities for faculty and students across engineering and across campus to come together to work on major interdisciplinary problems," Fenves said.
Luckily for UT-Austin, the new building wasn’t relying on TRB’s to exclusively fund its construction. While no specific plan exists to make up for the lost money, Fenves said he has options.
“We’ve got a variety of funding sources through UT system, our donors and the university. The state component through TRB will be very important. We can figure out how to make it work," Fenves said.
As TRB’s continue to be delayed, the wish-list of projects continue to pile up. But the Tribune’s Hamilton said the money is actually crucial to some campuses.
“For UT-Austin, they’re trying to build a $300 million engineering building, which would be great. But for a school like Prairie View A&M for example, they just want about $6 million just so they can do some critical maintenance that they’ve been needing," Hamilton said.
It wasn’t all gloom and doom for higher education during the session. Texas colleges and universities did get an overall boost in funds. The Valley got the crown jewel of the session.
“They passed a bill that will eventually lead to the abolishment, technically, of UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan America. And a new university, sort of a super university will be created out of those two institutions. And it will include a medical school. It’s a really, really big deal for the Valley," Hamilton said.
The big deal for other schools, for now, will be watching and waiting to see if Governor Rick Perry adds Tuition Revenue Bonds to the agenda of the current special session on redistricting.