Legislators appear ready and willing to approve billions in tuition revenue bonds — or “TRBs” — for campus construction projects, but only if Gov. Rick Perry will let them.
Despite popular support in both chambers, a bill that would have allowed more than $2.7 billion in bonds to be issued for projects around Texas failed in the final days of the regular session largely due to egos and political miscalculations.
(The bill died when the House refused to go to conference on the bill, the Senate refused to accept the House version and neither side blinked as time ran out.)
There was hope that the issue might be added to the agenda of the first special session, but it didn't happen. There remains hope that it might be added to the call and addressed before the second special session ends — as early as today.
“With nineteen days left in the special session, there is still plenty of time to do so," Rep. John Raney, R-College Station, said in a statement on Thursday, warning that failing to help colleges and universities build and renovate their campuses could have dire consequences.
“Institutions’ hands are tied and growth is stifled if we, the Legislature and the Governor, don’t provide an additional funding source sooner rather than later,” he said.
So far, the governor, who chooses the items on the special session's to-do list, has only called for bills dealing with abortion restrictions, sentences for 17-year-old murderers and transportation funding.
“What the governor’s staff has always told me,” said state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who has attempted to get TRB legislation passed for the last three regular sessions, “is that he would consider adding TRBs to the call after the other three bills were passed.”
The last time the Legislature passed a bond package for campus construction was in 2006, and the wish list of projects at universities has been growing.
Perry has given no indication that he intends to add the issue. When asked if it might be added during the initial days of the second special, Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed replied, "The governor wants lawmakers to focus on the issues that are already on the call."
But some lawmakers have decided to focus on TRBs anyway. Between the House and the Senate, eight bills have been filed in the current special session, some dealing only with specific projects, like a highly anticipated engineering education and research center at the University of Texas at Austin.
On Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee met and approved House Bill 5, by state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, a broad bill that would benefit campuses throughout Texas.
Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said his plan was to park the bill in the Calendars Committee so that it could be moved quickly if Perry opts to add it to the call.
It's not an unprecedented move. In 2006, a TRB bill was similarly situated when Perry added the issue to the call midway through a special session. It only took four days for the legislation to wind its way through the legislative process, and it was ultimately signed by the governor.
If lawmakers attempted to move House Bill 5 further along without Perry's blessing — which, in theory, they could try — it would be vulnerable to a point of order.
“A TRB bill would be the perfect way to end the session,” said Zaffirini, who has her own legislation ready to be filed when the time comes.
“This special session has been so controversial,” she said. “This would be something positive. We would end on a high note. It would bring the governor’s focus back to economic development, and I believe it would be a morale booster for higher education.”