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As Session Ends, Campus Construction Bonds Appear Dead

UPDATED: The Senate adjourned on Sunday night without any movement on a bill that would have approved nearly $2.7 billion in what are called "tuition revenue bonds" for campus construction projects.

Texas Southern University campus, Feb. 22nd, 2012.

Updated, 11:15 p.m.:

The Senate adjourned on Sunday night without any movement on a bill that would have approved nearly $2.7 billion in what are called "tuition revenue bonds" for campus construction projects, meaning the legislation is likely dead this session.

The bill was in an awkward spot as the regular session entered its final hours. The Senate refused to concur with House amendments to the original Senate Bill 16 by state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo. Meanwhile, the House declined to acknowledge the Senate's request for a conference committee.

The Senate could have accepted the House changes, but there did not appear to be much of an appetite for that.

"It's bad public policy to try and not have a well thought out, real discussion between the House and Senate when you're looking at a large TRB package," Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst told reporters on Sunday evening.

A more complicated route to passage would have been for the House to suspend its rules and appoint a conference committee to adopt the report, which the lower chamber was not inclined to do.

After the Senate adjourned, state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, tweeted, "Sad to hear Senate killed TRB bill; our universities are busting at the seams and need room for growth."

Unless tuition revenue bonds are added to a special session call — and there are some rumblings that it might be — those seams may have to hold for at least another two years.

Original story:

A bill authorizing nearly $2.7 billion in bonds for campus construction was on life support as the legislative session approached its final hours.

The issuance of what are known as “tuition revenue bonds” would be authorized by Senate Bill 16 by state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, but on Sunday evening, it was in a tough, possibly irreconcilable, spot.

The original version of the bill, which passed the Senate, authorized more than $2.4 billion in bonds for campus construction. The version of the bill that was returned to them by the House authorized nearly $2.7 billion.

The Senate opted not to concur with the changes. They requested a conference committee to hammer out the differences between the two chambers’ versions of the bill, and they even appointed members to the conference committee.

“Then we got the message that [the House was] not appointing conferees and we could take it or leave it,” Zaffirini told the Tribune on Sunday. “Well, we can’t do that. We’re talking about $2.7 billion in construction. You need a conference committee.”

Technically, conference committee reports had to be wrapped up and distributed by midnight on Saturday. The House could only appoint a conference committee to deal with the bill on Sunday evening because of a suspension of the rules allowing it.

“All they have to do is appoint conferees, adopt the conference committee report, and then we’ll do the same and it’s over,” Zaffirini said.

A conference committee report is ready to go, Zaffirini said. One difference between it and the House version of the bill that she said is “absolutely critical” is that the latter makes the legislation contingent on the passage of specific other bills this session, while the former does not.

Zaffirini pointed out that the House did suspend some rules regarding deadlines on Sunday. But Jason Embry, a spokesman for House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, said, "The suspension of the rules in the House [on Sunday] would not have allowed the appointment of conference committees."

Zaffirini has been pushing for another round of tuition revenue bonds for multiple sessions, and this is the closest to passage that such a bill has been in years. Typically, tuition revenue bond packages are authorized every other regular session, but the last time the Legislature did so was in 2006.

Among the many projects included in the bill are an engineering building at the University of Texas at Austin, a new Brownsville campus for a university being created in the Rio Grande Valley, a biocontainment research facility at Texas A&M University, and a pharmacy and biomedical sciences building at the University of Houston.

"The House passed a strong universities facilities bill that has broad support in the higher education community," House Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, said in a statement.

There was another, easier way to pass the bill and satisfy university administrators eager to break ground on their projects.

Zaffirini could recall the Senate’s conference committee and concur with the House amendments to the bill, sending that version to the governor's desk. She said she does not intend to do that.

“We’re not ready to concur, because that’s no way to do business,” she said. “For a bill of this magnitude, neither chamber should tell the other, ‘Take it or leave it.’”

Despite her support for funding campus construction, she indicated that, even as the session entered its final hours, she would not waver. If the House would not belatedly agree to conference, she said, “They kill the bill.” 

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