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In Absence of TRBs, Universities Delaying Improvement Plans

Following yet another legislative session without tuition revenue bonds since the last round was authorized in 2006, many universities — especially smaller, regional ones — are delaying their projects.

Repairs underway on the Clear Lake campus of the University of Houston, Aug. 11, 2013.

The University of Houston-Clear Lake, which is scheduled to become to a four-year university next fall, had sought support from the Texas Legislature for new science and academic support facilities that administrators hope to open in 2017.

But a package of tuition revenue bonds to provide more than $2.7 billion to support about 60 campus construction projects around the state was not approved during the last legislative session, despite broad, bipartisan support. And during the three subsequent special sessions, Gov. Rick Perry did not add the issue to the agenda.

William A. Staples, the president of UH-Clear Lake, said the institution’s plan to begin accepting underclassmen is proceeding as planned.

“The challenge will come in about three years,” Staples said. He said he was hopeful that the Legislature would make financing available in 2015. “If not,” he said, “then we will have to really limit the number of freshmen and sophomores we can take on a yearly basis due to the lack of new facilities.”

Following yet another session without tuition revenue bonds since the last round was authorized in 2006, many universities — especially smaller, regional ones — are delaying their projects.

“It’s tougher on the regional campuses,” said John Sharp, the chancellor of the Texas A&M University System. “They don’t have the leverage that we do at our flagship, which is big enough where we can go in the private sector and see if someone will partner with us.”

Gary Susswein, a spokesman for the University of Texas at Austin, which sought $95 million in tuition revenue bonds for a new $310 million engineering education center, said officials there are hopeful they can find an alternative source of funding.

“We need this building,” he said. “It is essential, and we are looking for ways to get this done.”

But for several institutions, finding other options can be difficult. In an email, Eugene Bourgeois, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Texas State University, wrote, “At this stage, we have no contingency plan for addressing space needs for our two highest-priority facilities: an engineering and science building for our main campus and a health professions building for our Round Rock campus.”

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, expressed surprise that Perry did not add tuition revenue bonds to the agenda in the final special session, especially after he indicated he would consider other items once his priorities had been addressed.

“Rick Perry doesn’t bluff,” Zaffirini said. “He doesn’t play games. Usually, he’s pretty frank. I felt, given my history of experience with him, if he had not intended to put it on, he would have told me so.”

Senate Higher Education Committee Chairman Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, characterized the need to improve some university facilities, including a storm-damaged library at Texas Southern University, as “emergencies.”

He said the governor never provided a clear explanation for why the issue was not added to the to-do list in a special session. “It would have been nice to know that,” he said, "because we put a substantial amount of work in without it even on the call."

In a statement, Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for Perry, said, “As all state agencies and Texas families have to do, it is up to the institutions to prioritize spending and determine the best and most efficient ways to provide a quality higher education to their students.”

House Higher Education Committee Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, hinted at a silver lining. “While the Legislature missed the opportunity to help our universities commence these needed projects sooner rather than later,” he said, “our institutions have learned to do more with less.” 

Zaffirini and Seliger both said they planned to reintroduce legislation on campus construction at the next opportunity. Seliger said he would prefer to pay for projects using money from the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund and might pursue that route.

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