$1B at stake in Texas higher education funding plan

Chancellor: "The sky really is going to fall if you pass this bill"

There's a battle over legislative process brewing in Texas, and more than $1 billion dollars are at stake.

Higher education leaders in Texas are concerned about funding after the House and Senate each submitted their first drafts of a state budget plan, Matthew Watkins reports for the Texas Tribune.

The House budget draft included about $1 billion in "special item" appropriations for higher education, roughly the same as in previous budgets. But the Senate draft included almost none of these appropriations.

Lawmakers use special items to send funds—outside of regular appropriations—to particular programs. Projects that could qualify for special item funding include:

  • Academic programs;
  • Museums;
  • Research projects;
  • Faculty and staff hires; and
  • Small business development centers.

Some state senators are growing skeptical of special items precisely because they're allocated outside the normal appropriations formulas, which distribute funds to colleges based on criteria like number of students and the subjects they study.

Critics of special items also point out that the same ones continue reappearing on the state budget, year after year—the oldest was first listed in 1909.

Though very few special items appeared in the Senate's first draft budget, they aren't going to go away entirely, says state Sen. Kel Selinger (R-Amarillo), chair of the Senate's higher education committee.

But they are "going to be a much smaller part of the budget going forward," he adds.

Implications for schools

In a hearing earlier this week, higher education leaders warned of dire consequences if special items disappear from the state budget.

"The sky really is going to fall if you pass this bill," said Jon Sharp, chancellor of the Texas A&M University System.

If special items were eliminated, the president of Texas Woman's University said her school would be forced to cut hundreds of classes. The dean of Texas A&M University (TAMU)'s Health Science Center said her university would need to drastically reduce its enrollment, which would in turn threaten accreditation. Texas A&M University-Commerce President Ray Keck concluded, "Special items—as you have heard from all of my colleagues—are a method of core funding for our core offerings."

During the hearing, state Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) reassured higher education officials that some special items would return to the budget. Around $300 million is currently available for special items, she said, adding that legislators may even find more.

Nelson also said the state faces a challenging financial situation and that she plans to convene a working group to identify which special items can be saved.

In any case, the Senate's budget plan would have to be reconciled with the House's budget plan, which hasn't yet proposed changes to special item funding (Watkins, Texas Tribune, 1/25; Watkins, Texas Tribune, 1/24).

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