Politics & Government

Texas lawmakers have days to reach deal on $3 billion for college construction

University of North Texas Health Science Center NOTE: This panorama is stitched together from six photos.
University of North Texas Health Science Center NOTE: This panorama is stitched together from six photos. STAR-TELEGRAM

Nothing is guaranteed in the Texas Legislature — except that the clock will run out on the session at midnight June 1 and thousands of bills will die.

But lawmakers scrambling to pass a $3 billion bond package, including $540 million for higher education facilities in North Texas, believe they have enough time and support to approve the measure.

“It’s going to pass,” said Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth. “I do believe this one will make it to the finish line.

“There has been too much hard work that has gone into this for it not to pass.”

Similar proposals have almost made it through every session for most of the last decade, only to die in the waning days, leaving universities statewide without money to add buildings needed to keep up with the ever-growing number of students.

If lawmakers succeed, the funding — including for the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth, the University of Texas at Arlington and Tarleton State University’s new local campus — will be the first state bond package for Texas universities since 2006.

Last week, the Senate passed a version that provides about $85 million less than the House-approved version, although it still tops $3 billion.

Lawmakers must reconcile the two versions before the package can be sent to Gov. Greg Abbott for consideration. A conference committee could resolve the differences early this week, lawmakers say.

Groups such as Texans for Fiscal Responsibility that oppose piling up debt are against the bond package, saying lawmakers should walk away from the proposal and fund the new buildings outright.

The bill allows bonds to be sold for construction. The Legislature typically uses general revenue to pay off the bonds.

Tarrant construction

The proposal would send more than $540 million to North Texas campuses.

The Senate version calls for giving $73.75 million — down from $80 million in the House version — to the health science center, which has drawn national attention for Alzheimer’s research.

The money would help build a four-story interdisciplinary research building at the northeast corner of Camp Bowie Boulevard and Clifton Street.

The total cost of the building — with 150,000 square feet of research and teaching labs, classrooms, study rooms, multimedia learning areas, and faculty and administrative offices — is estimated at $121 million.

“We’re appreciative of the strong support lawmakers are showing for higher education in Texas, and we’re prepared to move ahead once the bill passes,” said Jeff Carlton, director of media relations at the health science center. “This will be our first new research building in more than a decade, and we’ve more than doubled our research expenditures in that time period.

“We have especially strong research programs in vision, aging and Alzheimer’s, and forensic genetics, and funding for a new research building will help us continue to make progress there and on other fronts.”

The measure would also allocate $70 million for UT Arlington to construct a science and education innovation and research building.

UTA sought funding to put toward a 210,000-square-foot building for “collaborative science and engineering research programs with specific focus on Bioengineering, Architectural Engineering, Engineering Management, Biology, Chemistry, Resource Engineering, and Health Science,” according to an online legislative request.

The total cost of the building is estimated at $190 million, according to the document.

“As our state’s universities grow, so does the need for increased and updated facility space, which makes passage of these long-overdue tuition revenue bonds so critical,” said Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, whose district includes part of Arlington.

“The $70 million bond for UT Arlington is essential as the school continues to establish itself as a leading urban research university,” he said. “This investment in UTA will help even more students succeed through access to updated technology and courses, as well as attract even more research dollars and world-class faculty.”

The bill also earmarks $39.6 million to help establish a new campus in Fort Worth — a southwest Metroplex building for Tarleton State University.

Tarleton officials announced last year that they plan to build a campus along the new Chisholm Trail Parkway in south Tarrant County on land donated by Walton Group, a Canada-based developer.

The campus is geared toward serving the thousands of Tarleton students who already come from Tarrant County. The main campus is in Stephenville.

Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, said the funding would help make a difference in southwest Fort Worth.

“There is still plenty of time to get it passed,” said Goldman, whose district includes the future campus. “We have until June 1, and anything and everything is still possible until then.”

Other area projects

The Senate bill includes $73.75 million, down from $80 million in the House version, to build and renovate a vivarium and academic and laboratory facilities at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas and $70 million for an engineering building at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Other Metroplex earmarks in the Senate bill:

▪ $49 million, down from $56 million in the House version, to renovate law buildings in the University of North Texas System.

▪ $70 million to build a college of visual arts and design facilities at the UNT campus in Denton.

▪ $57.5 million, down from $63 million in the House version, to build a student learning and success center at the UNT campus in Dallas.

▪ Nearly $38 million for a laboratory building at Texas Woman’s University in Dallas.

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley

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