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Eric Gay

University leaders’ fears never realized in Capitol

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Matthew Watkins, The Texas Tribune

AUSTIN -- Some of Texas' top lawmakers entered the 2017 legislative session with big plans to shake up higher education in the state. Instead, their 140 days' worth of work was most notable for what they didn't do to public universities.

The Legislature didn't overhaul how the universities are funded -- or hit them with big cuts. It didn't freeze tuition. It didn't repeal the state's controversial automatic college admissions law. It didn't pare back a free tuition program for veterans and their kids. And it didn't eliminate a widely used but controversial financial aid program for poor students.

In the end, the funding and oversight of higher education in Texas next year will look pretty similar to how it did last year. To university leaders who spent much of the session in a state of dread, that's welcome news.

"I think 'relief' is the appropriate term," said Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes when asked to describe university leaders' feelings.

School officials had been most worried about the budget. In the early days of the session, the Senate had been pursuing a major change in how colleges were funded. Budget writers proposed eliminating a tactic known as a special item, which allocates money to specific universities for specific projects outside the standard funding formulas.

School officials warned that the elimination of those items would have been catastrophic. Some schools were poised to lose as much as half of their state funding. A few university presidents warned that they might have to close their doors. But the House never bought on, and negotiators eventually agreed to stick special items back into the budget.

As a result, many schools ended up faring better than expected -- and better than many other areas in the budget. Total general revenue sent to the universities increased by about 1 percent, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Policy Priorities. Only about 40 percent of four-year universities or system offices ended up facing reductions.

It wasn't all good news for higher education leaders, however. Many of the schools receiving increases didn't get enough new money to cover enrollment growth from the past two years. And schools still haven't made up for the losses they incurred from 2011 -- the last time the Legislature made big cuts.

"The budget looked a lot worse in January than it did on May 29," Paredes said, but added, "It doesn't look as good as it could have."

The universities and their supporters seem pleased. During the session, alumni groups from both the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University rallied their members to call their lawmakers and ask for more funding. The message was one of alarm -- that irreparable damage could occur. Now that the session is over, those groups feel much better.

"We knew it was a difficult session, but in the end, leadership came around and did the right thing and gave big approval for higher education and its growth in Texas," said Will O'Hara, co-interim director of the Texas Exes alumni group for UT-Austin.

In the meantime, lawmakers passed important legislation aimed at fighting sexual assault on campus and allowing community colleges to offer bachelor's degrees in nursing. But a lot of the most controversial bills fell to the wayside.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, pushed for bills early in the session that would have frozen tuition for two years and eliminated a state rule that universities set aside a portion of their tuition revenue to be used for scholarships for low-income students. Both of those measures passed the Senate but failed to move out of the House Higher Education Committee.

Patrick lamented those losses in a statement, saying the bills "would have immediately addressed the spiraling costs of a college education that is crippling many Texans."

Meanwhile, legislation to eliminate or pare back the state's Top 10 Percent Rule, which promises automatic admission to state schools to students who graduate near the top of their high school's class, didn't reach the Senate floor. And an effort to reduce the cost of providing free tuition to veterans and their kids died in the House.

House Higher Education Chairman J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville, said some high-profile bills stalled out because of the uncertain funding situation. The threat of major cuts made some dramatic changes in policy seem less tolerable to some members, he said in an interview as the session wound down.

"Next session, some issues like addressing tuition increases might be more palpable if there actually is an increase in funding," he said.

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans -- and engages with them -- about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.