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New Special Session Brings Renewed Hope for Campus Construction

Despite broad bipartisan support, lawmakers have been unsuccessful this year in their efforts to pass a bill issuing tuition revenue bonds to fund campus construction. Another special session may provide them with an opportunity to try again.

UTEP campus on Jan. 31, 2012.

Despite broad bipartisan support, Texas lawmakers have been unsuccessful this year in their efforts to pass a bill issuing tuition revenue bonds — or TRBs — to fund campus construction around the state. Returning for yet another special session, which Gov. Rick Perry called on Tuesday, may provide them with an opportunity to try again.

"I don't think any of us have ever given up hope," said state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin. "We would certainly like to see TRBs on the call."

At the end of the regular session, the TRB bill was held up by political jockeying as the clock ran out. In the two subsequent special sessions, Perry did not add the issue to the official to-do list. Lawmakers could have tried to move a TRB bill, but when the legislation is not on the governor's special session call, it's easy to defeat on a technicality.  

Before the second special ended, Perry indicated that he might consider adding TRBs to that call. "Once we get the transportation issue addressed and finalized, then we can have a conversation about whether or not there are any other issues that we have the time and inclination to put on the call," he said.

But a plan to address the state's transportation funding needs failed, and so TRBs were never added. Now, Perry has called lawmakers back for a third 30-day special session, and transportation funding remains the only item on the agenda — for now.

"If and when both chambers pass the transportation bill, I believe very strongly that the governor will add TRBs to the call," said state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo.

Zaffirini pushed for a TRB bill for the last three regular sessions and has already filed a bill in the just-called special session. State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, and state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, are among the 22 co-authors on Zaffirini's legislation and have also filed TRB bills of their own.

The Legislature hasn't approved a round of bonds to fund campus construction in seven years, and the list of needed projects has been growing, as has the student population.

"Tuition revenue bonds are a necessity for higher education in this state, and it should be a top priority in our third special session," said state Rep. John Raney, R-College Station, adding, "Institutions must have a reliable long-term source of funding for their infrastructure, and we must provide an additional funding source for them to be able to address their needs."

Howard, who was one of 69 House members to sign a letter requesting that TRBs be added to the call during the first special session, said she did not understand what political benefit there could be to keeping the bill off the call.

"This is something that would benefit essentially every region of our state," Howard said. "As far as I can see, it's a win-win all around, including for the governor."

But not every member is excited by the prospect of passing tuition revenue bonds. "We just don't need to be putting Texans in more debt," said state Rep. Van Taylor, R-Plano. "Texans already endure one of the highest levels of debt when you take into account city, county and school debt load. This is just more, and we don't need it."

Rumors have been circulating in the Capitol that if a TRB bill were to surface, there could be attempts to add controversial language allowing people with concealed handgun permits to carry weapons in college and university buildings.

Zaffirini, who opposes the proposal, said she had heard such speculation, but did not believe a "campus carry" amendment would be germane to a TRB bill.

It's also possible that the governor could opt to add "campus carry," which has also struggled to gain traction in recent regular sessions, as a distinct item on the call, easing its entry into the special session conversation. State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, sent Perry a letter on Tuesday asking that he do just that.

"I know you share my concern that law-abiding Texans are being stripped of their God-given, constitutional right to self defense simply because they have stepped foot on a college campus," Birdwell wrote.

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Higher education State government Rick Perry Texas Legislature