Campus Construction High on Legislative Priority Lists

State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, at Triblive on Dec. 6, 2012.
State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, at Triblive on Dec. 6, 2012.

In 2011, to the chagrin of many university administrators, legislators declined to approve the financing of any campus construction projects. But comments from state leaders on Thursday regarding their higher education priorities may offer new hope for 2013.

At a TribLive event on Thursday morning, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said he was hopeful that this session would bring generous funding for higher education, "including a package of tuition revenue bonds," the mechanism by which campus construction is typically funded.

Later that same afternoon, at a Texas Politics Speaker Series event at the University of Texas at Austin, Senate Higher Education Chairman Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, said his priorities included more money for higher education funding formulas and money for construction projects. He was joined by House Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, who agreed, having supported the idea in the last session given the low interest rates and construction costs.

Those conditions are one reason that UT-Austin was able to shave an estimated $13 million off the cost of a new College of Liberal Arts building, which opened this week. The university managed to build it through atypical financing that did not include legislative assistance, though Jamie Southerland, assistant dean for business affairs, said it may have been a case of the stars aligning. 

A bill authorizing tuition revenue bonds at a number of campuses has already been filed by state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo and the former chairwoman of Senate Higher Education.

Branch and Seliger also touched on other higher education topics at Thursday events.

Anticipating a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the consideration of race in the admissions process will come in late spring, Branch said it would be prudent to tweak the state's laws to preserve current caps on automatic admissions of top 10 percent students at UT-Austin. Under the current statute, a ruling outlawing the consideration of race would cause the university to have a freshman class made up entirely of automatically-admitted students.

Branch said that change would prevent any dramatic changes when the Legislature is out of session, allowing any lawmakers who want to to revisit the state's current policies in 2015.

Regarding proposals to alter the funding formulas for universities, which are currently based on enrollment, to account for outcomes such as graduations, Seliger said: "I think it's inevitable and I think it's productive."

As for proposed campus carry legislation — which would allow concealed weapons on college campuses — Seliger noted that he had supported it in the past and did not believe it would be detrimental to campus safety. Branch said it may be an issue that is better left up to university boards of regents and administrators rather than the Legislature. Both said campus carry was not high on their individual priority lists.

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