University leaders hope bond program comes up in special session

Posted Monday, Jun. 10, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Gov. Rick Perry is being urged to add more than $2 billion in backlogged university construction projects onto the agenda of the special legislative session amid warnings that further delay could impair the quest for excellence in Texas higher education.

More than a half-dozen Metroplex universities, including the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth and the University of Texas at Arlington, were among more than 60 institutions that planned improvements under a $2 billion-plus bond package that died in the final hours of the 140-day regular session.

University boosters and their representatives in the House and Senate are now regrouping in a concerted effort to resurrect the package in the special session, which Perry called on May 27 to deal with legislative and congressional redistricting.

Educators and lawmakers say the special session is the last chance to avoid delaying long-planned expansion projects for two more years until legislators meet in their next biennial session in 2015.

“Mostly, they wouldn’t be able to go forward,” said Lee Jackson, chancellor of the University of North Texas System, which is hoping for millions of dollars in tuition construction bonds to finance projects at its institutions in Denton, Fort Worth and Dallas.

One top priority is an interdisciplinary research facility at the UNT Health Science Center, which has drawn national attention for its work in DNA and Alzheimer’s research.

UTA has requested $64 million to renovate and expand the life science building to further advance research and training in behavioral and biomedical sciences. The building was started in the late 1960s — well before the Internet age — and lacks many features needed to carry on scientific research in the 21st century, said Dr. Jon Campbell, chairman of the biology department.

“This building is very antiquated,” he said. “We’re not only due — we’re way way overdue” for improvements.

The last tuition revenue bond package authorized by lawmakers was in 2006. Over the past seven years, Texas pubic universities added 83,000 students.

Other bond requests in the Metroplex include a college of visual arts and design facility at the main UNT campus in Denton, a library and student success center at UNT-Dallas, renovation of a UNT law building, and a new science and technology center at Texas Woman’s University in Denton.

University construction is just one of dozen topics that lawmakers have presented to Perry in hope of expanding the session to include unresolved issues from the regular session. The special session will last up to 30 days, ending no later than June 28, although the governor could call additional special sessions.

“Right now, we are focused on redistricting and reviewing the bills passed in the regular session,” Perry’s spokesman Josh Havens said. “At this time, no decision has been made to add anything to the call.”

Chancellors and university presidents have called for legislative approval of the bond package to help them cope with record enrollment growth. Three of the Metroplex universities — UT Arlington, UT Dallas and UNT in Denton — are also seeking tier one status to become nationally competitive research universities.

“If the governor does not add TRBs to the call then it will be up to each institution in the system to go back to square one and see if they have the resources independently to meet these very important, if not critical construction needs,” said Barry McBee, vice chancellor and chief government relations officer at the UT System, which includes UTA and UT Dallas.

McBee said that UTA, as a “very fast-growing campus” seeking additional classrooms and laboratories in the life science building, “would be one of the places that we think would be significantly impacted by the absence of a TRB bill.”

Jackson said that postponing construction at the Health Science Center’s research lab “will slow our ability to recruit recognized successful top research scientists to Texas.”

Noting that Dallas Fort Worth has “had more enrollment growth” than other parts of the state, the UNT chancellor said that further delaying construction would have a “disproportionate impact on our ability to continue to meet the needs of the region because we are in such a high-growth area.”

Since dozens of lawmakers had a deep interest in construction at universities in their home districts, the bond package appeared on track to passage in the regular session. The House passed a $2.7 billion package and the Senate passed a $2.4 billion measure.

But differences between the two chambers in the final days of the session kept lawmakers from closing the deal, and the House refused to appoint a conference committee. Key lawmakers made one final effort in behind-the-scenes negotiations on the last day of the regular session but ran out of time.

Deal in the works

Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, and Sen Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, have introduced tuition revenue bond measures to be ready to go. And Jackson says House and Senate members have told him that “they’re very, very close” to a compromise.

“There’s not a deep division,” he said. “Now they feel like they missed an opportunity ... and they’re sending the signal that if given the opportunity they’re confident they will be able to reach a quick agreement.”

Dominic Chavez, a spokesman for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, said there “is pretty strong support” among lawmakers to add the construction projects to the special session agenda.

Many lawmakers and university officials, he said, are fearful that currently low interest rates will climb back by the time the Legislature reconvenes in its next biennial session in 2015.

“Generally speaking, for the state of Texas, money is cheap right now, so why not get out there and strike while the iron’s hot,” Chavez said in summarizing sentiments in the higher education community.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who sponsored the tuition bond package during the regular session, said she is optimistic that lawmakers will strike a deal if Perry adds the issue to agenda.

“This one could salvage the session,” she said. “The presidents and chancellors testified they have a serious capacity problem. We ask them to strive for excellence. ... You can’t expect them to warehouse students in trailers.”

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram’s Austin Bureau chief. 512-739-4471 Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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