Gov. Greg Abbott's signature higher education project, which aims to lure top researchers to Texas universities, is at risk of being defunded by the Legislature. 

Two years after lawmakers created the Governor's University Research Initiative, both the House and Senate have zeroed out funding for it in their early budget proposals. This year, the governor's office had asked for $40 million for the initiative, the creation of which was one of Abbott's top priorities in his first year as governor.

The initiative got that amount in 2015, and the money was used to help the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University and the University of Houston attract a combined total of 11 prominent researchers. 

No final decision has been made on the fund this year; more money could still be added into the 2018-19 budget. But in a tight year, lawmakers are arguing that the 2015 funding might have been a one-time expense. And some are questioning whether hiring 11 professors is worth $40 million. 

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Universities could be facing hundreds of millions of dollars in state funding cuts, and they are facing mounting pressure to keep tuition under control. 

"I look at the numbers, and it seems like we are spending  a lot of money on these researchers," said Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-Mission, at a recent budget hearing. Longoria chairs a House subcommittee that focuses on the section of the budget that funds the research initiative. 

Each dollar used by the fund must be matched by the university it's spent on. So $40 million from the initiative ends up totaling $80 million spent.

Supporters of the initiative say that's the cost of luring top professors. Not only do the researchers command high salaries, they also need laboratory space, graduate students and infrastructure to carry out their research. Once they are hired, they have the potential to elevate their universities and grow the economy through their research, supporters say.

Abbott has indicated that he is willing to fight for the project. During his time in office, the Republican governor has been a vocal supporter of the state's universities and has expressed a desire to see their prestige and rankings rise. 

On Monday, he'll host a reception at the Governor's Mansion featuring the researchers whom he helped recruit to Texas.

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And at his State of the State speech earlier this year, he called out Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, to say, "The Governor’s University Research Initiative you funded last session brought internationally renowned researchers to Texas."

He then noted A&M's use of the fund to hire Richard Miles, an aerospace engineering professor who came to Texas from Princeton University.

"His work places Texas A&M and the state of Texas at the forefront of laser and optical technology that can enhance national security," he said.

Abbott added, "We also need to put our state on the path for national and international prominence for the next 20 years." The initiative, he said, "does that. And it must be fully funded."

But even supporters of the initiative have balked at the $40 million that Abbott's office has requested for the initiative in 2018-19. In 2015, its money came from the dissolution of the Emerging Technology Fund, an economic development fund utilized by former Gov. Rick Perry. This year, money is tighter, and there's no obvious other fund at the governor's disposal from which to take the funds.

At a hearing in February, House Appropriations Committee Chairman John Zerwas, R-Richmond, suggested the governor's office find other parts of its budget that could be redirected to the initiative

"I would suggest that is probably a good exercise in light of where we are with dollars," he said.

Nelson, the Senate Finance Committee chairwoman, seemed to agree in a statement from her office Thursday night. Because the Emerging Technology Fund has been depleted, the statement said, "there is no longer a revenue source" for the Governor's University Research Initiative.

Disclosure: Texas A&M University, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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