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Altered Fixed-Tuition Bill Heads to Conference Committee

UPDATED: House Higher Education Dan Branch, R-Dallas, has opted not to concur with significant changes made by the Senate to a bill requiring universities to offer incoming students optional four-year fixed tuition plans.

The Texas Tribune Festival 2012 Opening Session: A conversation with Gov. Rick Perry and Evan Smith, Sept. 21, 2012.

Updated, May 23:

House Higher Education Dan Branch, R-Dallas, has opted not to concur with significant changes made by the Senate to a bill originally filed to require universities to offer incoming students optional four-year fixed tuition plans. 

House Bill 29 now moves to conference committee to work out to the differences between the versions passed by each chamber.

Branch noted that what was sent to the Senate as a three-page bill had come back substantially longer after senators added language adding restrictions and requirements for regents of public university systems, but only 14 lines of the original bill remained.

Original story, May 21:

Gov. Rick Perry has been a proponent of legislative efforts to require that universities offer a four-year, flat-rate tuition option for students. And with the Senate’s approval Tuesday, such a bill has now passed both chambers, but it includes language that might give the governor pause.

Perry's argument for a guaranteed tuition plan, as he explained in his State of the State address this year, is to “provide students and families cost certainty." He added that "this will also encourage them to graduate on time, which is a problem we simply can't ignore anymore.”

House Bill 29, by House Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, which requires an optional guaranteed tuition plan, passed the House without opposition. A notably different version of it passed the Senate on Tuesday, and it will now be seen if the House goes along with the changes or requests a conference committee.

In the Senate Higher Education Committee, the bill was altered to include language adding restrictions and requirements on new appointees to the state's public university system boards. The additions are very similar to Senate Bill 15 by Senate Higher Education Chairman Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, which Branch has referred to as the "higher ed governance clean up bill."

Filed amid concerns about the governance at the University of Texas System, SB 15 has already passed both chambers and is sitting on the governor's desk awaiting his approval.

Should HB 29 become law in the form approved by the Senate, in addition to calling for a fixed tuition option, it would also prevent new regents from voting on budget or personnel matters until they had completed ethics training. It would also prevent a system board from being able to fire a university president without a recommendation to that effect from the chancellor's office.

There are lingering questions about whether the governor, who appoints all the members of the boards of regents, would sign a bill restricting their authority. But Perry is on the record as wanting the universities to offer the fixed-tuition options contained in HB 29, making it a good backup plan if he vetoes SB 15.

However, Perry might not need HB 29. In recent months, university system governing boards around the state have been adopting system rules calling for fixed tuition plans to be offered at their institutions.

After two systems adopted such policies, Perry issued a statement on May 17 saying, “As families gather around their kitchen tables working to budget and make college a reality, the leadership at Texas Tech University System and University of Houston System have now given them the peace of mind of knowing that tuition will remain the same for four years and at the same time encouraging these students to complete their degrees on time.”

The boards of the state's other major university systems — the Texas State University System, University of North Texas System, University of Texas System and Texas A&M University System — have also signed on to similar proposals.

"A four-year fixed tuition price plan has been a priority of Gov. Perry’s for some time and he has been happy to see so many universities step up to the plate with plans of their own without a requirement from the Legislature," Perry spokesman Josh Havens said.

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