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Aggies, Longhorns on the Same Team for Higher Ed

Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin were rivals on the football field, but the state's two biggest schools come together every two years in the political arena for Orange and Maroon Legislative Day.

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The senior classes at Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin are the last bunch of Aggies and Longhorns to see their schools battle each other on the football field. Texas A&M left UT and the Big 12 Conference after the 2011 season, and the heated rivalry is, at least for now, over.

But on Wednesday, students and alumni from the state's two biggest universities will gather in the same arena — a political one — and this time, they'll play for the same team. A coalition of some 200 Aggies and Longhorns will fill the Texas Capitol with orange and maroon to lobby for higher education funding with a unified voice.

“It’s fun because there aren’t very many opportunities left to do things with A&M," said UT junior John Brown, who will attend his first Orange and Maroon Legislative Day this year.

In groups of four, with two representatives from each school, the advocates will meet with lawmakers from their own districts. The event has taken place every other year since 2003.

This year, the group will lobby lawmakers to increase funding for state universities and pass tuition revenue bonds to build new academic facilities, among other things.

“A lot of people focus on the competition — previously, the athletic competition,” said state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo. “When it comes to higher education in general, and excellence in higher education in particular, they agree.”

For UT graduate Richard Heller, who says he’s not active in politics besides voting, Orange and Maroon Day is his only chance to get face time with his representatives.

“It’s an opportunity for me to remind our state legislators that there are alumni and people who really care about higher education that don’t want to politicize it and really just want to show the value of it,” Heller said.

Lawmakers — many of them UT and A&M graduates — also join in the festivities. Two years ago, state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, celebrated Orange and Maroon Day by sporting an orange tie and maroon pants, earning him a "tacky award" from Zaffrini.

But state Rep. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, said the day serves an important purpose in making higher education policy.

“We want to know what’s on their agenda this year, both in terms of budgetary or policy terms,” said Seliger, chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee. “They’ve seen the bills that have been filed so far. I would like to know how it affects their institutions.”

Formula funding, which pays for core expenses like faculty salaries, is the main topic of conversation this year, according to Dan Becka, director of advocacy at the UT alumni organization Texas Exes. Becka said formula funding rates, which were cut during the 2011 session, haven’t been restored since then to keep up with rising enrollment rates, and the cost has been shifted to the students.

“Higher education has taken the hit in previous legislative sessions to the point where it’s almost not a public institution anymore,” said former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, now the president of Texas Exes. “It really encroaches on the need for tuition. We want to keep tuition as reasonable as possible so it’s not a bar to students being able to go.”

Proposed spending plans filed in both chambers last month provide more money for universities than the last two-year budget cycle, but advocates say they could go farther.

“It was an increase for higher education as a whole, and I think it’s a step in the right direction,” Becka said, referring to the proposed Senate budget. “We are still very much going into Orange and Maroon Day to ask the Legislature to fund higher education in even a bigger way than what the budgets currently lay out.”

Tuition revenue bonds, which fund construction projects at state universities, are the other major issue on the table. The last round of such bonds was approved in 2006. Bonds proposed in 2013 failed at the last minute when the Senate and House couldn’t resolve differences in their bills before the session ended, forcing some Texas schools to delay construction projects.

“It’s the only time I’ve seen a bill that everybody was in favor of fail,” Seliger said, referring to the 2013 effort. “I think it’s going to do much better this time.” 

UT is seeking $100 million from the state to renovate the science and engineering building Welch Hall, parts of which were built as early as 1929. Heller, who studied electrical engineering at UT in the 1990s, told lawmakers at the last Orange and Maroon Day that the building he used to study in “was a dump.”

“It was so old that when they originally built it, there were no women’s restrooms on the first floor because women were not even taking engineering,” Heller said. “They had to gut out a janitor’s room to create a women’s restroom.”

The big-ticket item on A&M's wish list is an $85 million biomedical research lab to study infectious diseases in large animals.

Becka said both alumni organizations — Texas Exes and the Association of Former Students of Texas A&M — avoid weighing in on controversial issues like whether to allow handguns on college campuses.

With a host of issues on their plates, don’t ask the alumni about any rivalry between their schools.

“At the end of the day, we’re all Texans,” said Phil Miner, who graduated from A&M in 1980.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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