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Universities Try Again on Construction Funding

In 2013, billions of dollars in bonds to pay for new campus buildings slipped through the grasp of state universities and colleges in the session's closing moments. Another bond package is now moving through the chambers, and university leaders hope not to repeat that fate.

University of Texas at Austin students pass by the Main Building on their way to and from classes.

*Correction appended

After years of waiting, state universities in 2013 came agonizingly close to securing billions of dollars to pay for new labs, student centers and classrooms. The projects had bipartisan support, and bills authorizing debt for their construction passed the House and the Senate. 

But as the session wound down, differences between the two bills were never quite resolved, and all that money slipped away in the session's final hours. 

Two years later, supporters hope to avoid repeating that fate. Lawmakers again broadly support a construction bond package, this time in the $3 billion range, and seem to be moving faster to approve it, leaving university officials cautiously optimistic.

The delay has been costly, campus leaders say. A decade has passed since lawmakers last approved a big package of the bonds for campus construction, known as tuition revenue bonds. Since then, construction prices have steadily grown, and a lack of space has limited enrollment growth at some schools.

Texas State University was forced to delay two vital projects, said Mike Wintemute, the university system's associate vice chancellor for governmental relations. A health professions facility on its Round Rock campus and an engineering building at the San Marcos campus lost out on funding in 2013. That, in part, prevented the departments that would have used the buildings from increasing enrollment.

“These are two degree programs that directly correlate with the state’s critical workforce needs,” Wintemute said. “The completion of these projects will allow the university to provide many more graduates in these fields who will immediately find jobs and contribute to the economy and serve Texas.” 

Other schools have made similar cases to lawmakers, urging swift authorization of the bonds. The Texas A&M University System has listed the bonds as one of its top three priorities, saying a music program at Texas A&M-Kingsville could lose accreditation if its decades-old building isn't improved. 

There has been some opposition. At least one lawmaker, Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, has questioned why the state doesn’t simply pay for the new buildings out of its general revenue, instead of taking on debt. And the advocacy group Texans for Fiscal Responsibility has said the bonds could increase the cost of college.

Supporters have pushed back against the tuition argument. The bonds are secured with future revenue, such as tuition, but are paid off with state appropriations, advocates say.

So far, lawmakers appear to be responding. Members of the House applauded Thursday as they gave final approval to House Bill 100, which would authorize more than $3 billion worth of debt to pay for projects across the state. The vote on the bill, authored by Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, was 131 to 13.

Meanwhile, the Senate Higher Education Committee has approved Senate Bill 150 by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, which would also authorize more than $3 billion worth of bonds. Lawmakers and university leaders say the two versions are nearly the same, so it won’t be hard to reconcile them if necessary.

“I think the leadership in the House and Senate did a good job of managing this issue,” said Tommy Williams, vice chancellor of federal and state relations for the Texas A&M University System.

Correction: This story originally identified the health professions building planned by Texas State as a nursing building.

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

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