An amendment to the budget pre-filed by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, could prove a bitter pill for the embattled University of Texas System regents, whom Pitts recently accused of being on a "witch hunt" against University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers.
Pitts' first amendment significantly lessens the regents' authority with regard to the UT System's use of the Available University Fund, which is comprised of the distributions from the Permanant University Fund — a major source of funding established in the Texas Constitution for the UT System and the Texas A&M System.
According to the budget as introduced, the UT System's share of the fund is expected to be around $440 million per year, which may be used "for new construction, major repairs and rehabilitation, equipment, maintenance, operation, salaries, and support, including the matching of private grants for the endowment of scholarships, fellowships, library support, and academic positions for The University of Texas at Austin and for The University of Texas System Administration and is to be used as the Board of Regents of The University of Texas System may determine."
Pitts' amendment simply strikes everything after the phrase "University of Texas at Austin." That would mean the the board of regents would lose their discretion over how the funds are spent and none of the money could go toward UT System administration. All of the funds would simply go to UT-Austin for the laundry list of uses detailed in the budget rider, save for "the payment of principal and interest on bonds or notes issued by the Board of Regents of The University of Texas System."
There has been speculation that Pitts might use his knowledge of and influence over the budget to send a message to the regents ever since his "witch hunt" comments at the first hearing of the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence, and Transparency. Pitts has also expressed concern about the regents' plan to seek a potentially pricey external review of compensation practices at the UT School of Law.
"I don’t believe that it would be appropriate for the Board to use any public money to pursue this ill-conceived, unnecessary, and duplicative investigation," Pitts said in a statement following the regents' vote for further review, which those in favor claimed was necessary due to information revealed through massive records requests of the university.
Following similar expressions of displeasure from several lawmakers, UT Regents Chairman Gene Powell promised that no decision on how to proceed would be made until his general counsel could meet with the attorney general's staff, which he expects to happen in the "next few weeks."
Another amendment by Pitts would prevent the UT System from spending appropriated funds "in the investigation of system component institutions or of their executive management, or in the request of open records from component institutions and their executive management." The system would be required to provide an annual report to the Legislative Budget Board and the governor's office providing details, including rationale and cost, for any investigations into any institution or its administration.
Along with state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, Pitts pre-filed yet another amendment that would take about $14 million of the money going to the system in 2014, and about $9 million in 2015, and turn it over to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board for safekeeping. The coordinating board could only transfer the funds back to the system with written approval from the governor and the Legislative Budget Board.