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House Panel Passes Campus Construction Bill

Legislators are continuing efforts to pass a bill that would help colleges and universities across Texas move forward with construction and improvement projects, even though the issue is not on the call for the special session.

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Though Gov. Rick Perry has not put tuition revenue bonds for campus construction in the call for the current special session, Texas legislators are moving forward with efforts to pass a bill that could help colleges and universities across Texas move forward with construction and improvement projects.

The House Appropriations Committee met on Thursday afternoon and passed House Bill 5, a major "TRB" measure by House Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas.

The bill would issue bonds for 62 campus construction projects, though House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, made it clear that it will not be sent to the House chamber for a vote until Perry adds the issue to the special session call.

At Thursday's meeting, the committee also unanimously passed House Joint Resolution 2, a transportation bill by state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, which would give the Texas Department of Transportation additional funding from the state’s gas revenues. TxDOT officials have indicated that the department needs roughly $4 billion a year to maintain current traffic congestion in the state.

Unlike TRBs, transportation funding is already on the call, along with abortion legislation and sentencing requirements for 17-year-old convicted killers.

The governor has not given any public signals that he intends to make any changes to the current slate of topics for consideration.

“The message we’ve gotten back is, he’s keeping an open mind and watching to see the progress of the other pieces of legislation that he has set on the call,” Branch said.

Branch told the committee that it is important to pass the measure in order for Texas to attract talented students and faculty in the future. For instance, he said, engineering students and faculty would be drawn to the University of Texas at Austin's proposed $310 million Cockrell Engineering Education Research Center, currently slated for completion in 2015.

HB 5 bill would provide $95 million in bonds to be issued for UT-Austin's project, which would replace an outdated building from the mid-20th century. University officials have said it could be delayed without state help.

Not passing the bill would adversely affect smaller and newer schools that might not have money to pay for construction on their own, Branch argued. 

“With these brand-new universities, you’re talking about increasing by maybe a third or a fourth their whole campus facilities,” Branch said. “With the smaller schools this is proportionally a greater impact.”

The measure, which received bipartisan support in both chambers during the regular session until negotiations broke down in the final days, was the subject of concerns raised Thursday by Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston.

Turner said he was not comfortable with any money going to the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston after Galveston County commissioners voted last month to decrease indigent health care services funding from 100 to 35 percent.

He said that the county agreed to fund 100 percent of indigent health care services in 2009 to receive support for up to $150 million in construction projects at UTMB. The school does not provide any of the county’s indigent care.

"I do think the attorney general needs to look at this," Turner said, questioning the legality of the situation in Galveston. He was one of three committee members to abstain from the vote on tuition revenue bonds.

There were no votes against HB 5 in committee, and 18 votes in favor of the bill. It now heads to the Calendars Committee.

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