The Texas Tribune

Budget committee reaches deal, prepares to release final budget for House and Senate vote

After months of negotiation, the joint House and Senate Budget Conference Committee on Thursday evening solidified its final version of the state budget for the next two years. Although the final size of the budget has yet to be publicly released, it is expected to be around $210 billion, according to The Texas Tribune.

The 10-member committee, composed of eight Republicans and two Democrats, hashed out the budget’s final details over the course of several days this week.

According to reports, the conference committee’s budget will not include a $3 million transfer from HIV and STD prevention programs into abstinence education, which had been a contentious component of the House budget.

The budget also includes the Senate’s proposed figure for public education, $1.5 billion, instead of the $2.2 billion the House proposed. Details about the budget’s higher education funding, which is distributed through a series of research funds and other targeted programs, are still to come.

Once the full bill is released, it will go to the House and Senate for a vote before heading to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

To read more about the conference committee’s decisions, read The Texas Tribune’s coverage here

Gov. Rick Perry speaks at The Tribune Festival at the AT&T Convention Center on Sunday morning. Perry reviewed his 14-year tenure as the state’s executive and discussed multiple issues such as health care, education and the Texas economy.

Photo Credit: Shelby Tauber | Daily Texan Staff

Closing The Texas Tribune Festival on Sunday morning, Gov. Rick Perry reviewed his 14-year tenure as the state’s executive at the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center, discussing health care, education and the Texas economy.

In an interview with Evan Smith, Texas Tribune CEO and editor-in-chief, Perry repeatedly refused to answer any questions about his Travis County grand jury indictment. When Smith jokingly threatened to stop asking questions and sit in silence, Perry said he was fine with that.

“It’ll be a long hour,” Perry said. “I had a date like that one time.”

Public education has been adequately funded by the state legislature, according to Perry.

“I don’t judge progress by how many dollars we spend,” Perry said. “I think it’s simplistic to say you’re not spending enough money. I suggest the result is hard to argue when you look at the number of kids going to college today and when they got a job out of school.”

Perry also said he still supports providing in-state tuition for undocumented students, and it should be no issue for the Texas Legislature to aid students in earning a higher education degree.

“I think it’s important for young people to move up, get that certificate or diploma,” Perry said.

Perry defended his stance against the Affordable Care Act.

“I’ve asked Washington multiple times for more flexibility to deal with the issue of health care and how we could receive the money from D.C. and restructure these programs so more people could have access,” Perry said. “In 2009, President Obama said Medicaid was broken, and I agree with him. So why would we want to expand a broken system?”

The Veterans Affairs hospitals around the country exemplify the future of government-run health care, according to Perry.

“The VA is a debacle,” Perry said. “I think one of the ways you fix health care is [to] get Washington out of the regulatory side of it and to allow the state to run it. Just like expansion of federally funded health clinics. Making access to health care is the real challenge here, not government-forced insurance.”

Although he is largely satisfied with his 14-year run as governor, Perry said he regrets his handling of his 2007 vaccine mandate for HPV. 

“I would have done it differently,” Perry said. “I would have engaged the public more. I thought the public understood this from the standpoint of a cancer. The execution was wrong. I was thinking out my heart instead of my head, and I want to make the people of Texas be more engaged. We’re not executive order types.”

Citing his run in the 2012 presidential election, Perry said he has not yet decided about another presidential run.

“I went through a very humbling and frustrating process in 2011 and 2012,” Perry said. “I was not prepared. It was obvious. I may or may not run for presidency, but, in order to give myself that option, you have do the work that is required.”

Perry reiterated his support for UT System Regent Wallace Hall and said the legislature should allow the Board of Regents to conduct its business unimpeded. He also defended his signing of House Bill 2.

Displaying a chart showing job growth in Texas, Perry also spoke about how the Texas Enterprise Fund — an incentive program that encourages businesses to come to Texas — has aided economic growth for the past decade.

“We became very good at economic development,” Perry said. “It took a while — [when] Boeing deciding in 2001 to move their corporate headquarters they chose Chicago instead of Dallas, they didn’t think the cultural arts were as expansive in Dallas as in Chicago.”

Since then, Perry said, cultural arts have exploded in the state’s major cities. Perry said, although the program has benefited Texas, it is up to the legislature to discuss the lifespan of the incentive bill and see whether it should continue.

“I think if they want to change them, if they want to unilaterally get out of the economic development business, that’s their call,” Perry said. “But, I would suggest over the last decade, we have been successful in large projects and small projects.”

Undeclared sophomore Lauren Hodges said she appreciated Perry’s performance.

“There were parts where he was being humble, and he’s not known for being humble,” Hodges said. “But when he dodged the whole hypocrisy question, I thought that was kind of pathetic.”

Smith said he thought Perry interviewed especially well Sunday.

“I’ve interviewed him many times over the past years, and I thought this was the most relaxed I’ve seen him,” Smith said after the interview. “We’ve had some contentious interviews over the years. I would have liked to talk more about the indictments, but I understand he was constrained by the legal process.”

 

Check out more photos from The 2014 Texas Tribune Festival in the slideshow below ~

Photo Credit: Shelby Tauber | Daily Texan Staff

Less than 24 hours after her gubernatorial debate with Attorney General Greg Abbott, state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, spoke with Evan Smith, The Texas Tribune CEO and editor-in-chief, at The Texas Tribune Festival on Saturday.

“I had an opportunity to show in stark contrast these two people who are asking to serve Texas as its next governor,” Davis said. “I think I was able to demonstrate that I will be a governor who will fight every single day for the people of this state.”

In the talk, held at the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center, Davis expanded on her plan to provide pre-kindergarten to all eligible children in the state.

“We are the number one state of adults without a high school diploma,” Davis said. “By 2040, 40 percent of our adults will not have a high school diploma.”

Davis estimated that her plan would cost around $700 million on a sliding scale.

“The more important question is what does it cost if we don’t invest?” Davis said. “If we don’t invest in them, it will hurt our state economy in the future. This race is about the future of Texas and if we’re going to make the investments needed to create a successful future.”

Public relations freshman Cody Church said he saw an improvement in Davis’ performance Saturday and appreciated how relaxed she sounded in contrast to Friday’s debate. He also said he liked her view on pre-kindergarten.

“I really enjoy how much she’s advocating for universal pre-k,” Church said. “It’s a great investment in kids in the future. There are so many studies that say pre-k sets kids so much farther when they enter elementary school.”

Davis also talked about the importance of higher education and getting students into college. One thing hindering students from college, she said, was the hike in in-state tuition.

“Our tuitions have doubled or more than doubled in some of our universities, and, at the same time, we’ve seen a decline in financial aid,” Davis said. “Even for the students who are receiving those grants, they aren't receiving enough to close the gap. The legislature made the decision to thin down the amount students could get. If we want to make sure we have the work force for the jobs of tomorrow, we have to invest in our kids.”

Davis said she supported giving in-state tuition to undocumented students, and would veto a bill that threatened to take away that in-state tuition.

“Students should get in-state tuition who have [been] brought here on no fault of their own,” Davis said. “We should be focusing our resources on the real problems of drug trafficking, human trafficking, and not thinking about people who are willing to work hard, willing to learn English. That was George W. Bush’s plan, and I agree with it.”

Davis also addressed the controversy of the timing of her memoir’s publication. Abbott’s campaign filed a request to the Texas Ethics Commission to come to a decision about her book tour and if it conflicted with her political campaign ethically.

“It was a very personal book, not a political book,” Davis said. “When I agreed to write it, I agreed to write a very public book. I released the book when I completed the book. I am proud to show people how I came to be how I am, and why I am fighting for the things I am fighting for.”

Davis also answered Abbott’s question from Friday’s debate about voting for Obama.

“I don’t regret it,” Davis said. “There are things our president has done I agree wholeheartedly with. There are things I disagree with too. In my area of the state, both President Obama and Greg Abbott tried to intervene and stop the merger between U.S. Airways and American Airlines. Do you understand what that would have done for the economy of the state? Neither of them showed an understanding of the economic engine that is American Airlines.”

Abbott declined to speak at this year's Tribune Festival.

“It’s disappointing because I really am an independent voter,” Church said. “I would love to see both sides. That keeps both people on their toes.”

While both the Dell Medical School and the UT-Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine will educate more physicians in Texas, a panel of doctors at The Texas Tribune Festival on Saturday, along with state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, reiterated the pressing need for more physicians throughout the state.

During the discussion, which was held in Robert A. Welch Hall, Watson said Texas is still below the national average on the number of doctors per 100,000 people.

“The national average is around 240 doctors per 100,000. In Texas it’s 170, and in the Valley it’s 107,” Watson said. “In the area of pediatrics and psychology, we’re below 60 percent of the national average.”

Although the two new medical schools are scheduled to open within the next few years, Tedd Mitchell, president of the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, said graduates will still be competing for a limited amount of residency spots in Texas, a number that is not growing as quickly as medical education in the state. Mitchell said if the number of spots does not increase, graduates could be forced to look elsewhere to complete their medical training.

“It’s cheap to go to medical school in Texas, which is a great thing, but the state will be in the habit of educating here and sending them to, heaven-forbid, Oklahoma, or New Mexico or Louisiana,” Mitchell said. “We want them here.”

The doctors on the panel also discussed the need for more primary care doctors in rural areas, positions that don’t offer as many financial incentives as specialty care.

“We need to look at what is drawing people away from rural areas and what is drawing people away from primary care,” said Clay Johnston, the inaugural dean of the Dell Medical School.

Brett Giroir, CEO of the Texas A&M Health Science Center, said the future of medical education would involve more of an interdisciplinary approach.

“We’re entering a really new era that’s not just about hard science in one field,” Giroir said. “It’s about the combination of multiple disciplines, all to create a sustainable, affordable, accessible health care system that provides the benefits for all across the board. Physicians don’t usually understand that or get the training in that. We are all looking at different ways to train physicians for the next 100 years.”

Johnston echoed Giroir's sentiments.

“Facts aren’t worth as much as they used to be,” Johnston added. “Human memory is very fallible, and a cell phone and Google are much less so. Learning how to find information and synthesize it, and how to use that to problem-solve with patients is another aspect of how medical education is changing.”

A Texas Tribune Festival panel of educators, including President William Powers, Jr., discuss college completion rates in Texas on Saturday.

Photo Credit: Dan Resler | Daily Texan Staff

During a panel for The Texas Tribune Festival on Saturday, President William Powers Jr. said the University is making progress toward its goal of increasing the four-year graduation rate to 70 percent by 2016.

In recent years, four-year graduation rates have been at more than 50 percent. Powers said students taking longer to graduate from the University become a resource issue.

"If somebody stays longer, there’s not room for other people to come in," Powers said. “We have students who are taking 145 credit hours. That’s using our resources. That’s using their resources.”

When students switch majors, certain courses they have previously taken no longer count in their new degree plan, Powers said, making it more difficult for them to graduate in four years.

"Degree plans are too complicated,” Powers said. “They’re too specified and narrowed. We’ve got to have a lot more flexibility in that so students can navigate that.”

Panelist Brian McCall, chancellor of the Texas State University System, discussed how it is more important that students actually graduate, regardless of how long it may take them.

McCall said it is a 1960s and 1970s notion that students can attend college from the ages 18-21 while their parents pay for their education. He said this is not the case anymore.

“Today, where the average age of the student is in the mid-twenties, and, in our case in the Texas State University System, the eight institutions in our system, 73 percent of the students work, and that is almost full-time, and that is year-round,” McCall said. “If they graduate in five years, six years, we celebrate it.”

State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, said demographers report about 60 percent of jobs in the future are going to require some form of higher education or certificate, making it increasingly important to receive a college degree, even if it may take longer.

“We’re not nearly at that level,” said Branch, who is chairman of the House Higher Education Committee.

About 34 percent of the current workforce in Texas requires credentials, according to Branch.

Branch said although he believes there is not a college-completion crisis in Texas, it is becoming increasingly important for students to graduate within four years because of limited public funds.

“To me when you look at the cost of having someone stay six, seven years, as opposed to getting out early – the cost to that family, that person, the cost of debt, the cost to taxpayers, and that scholarship could have gone to someone else – to me, that’s one aspect of a crisis that could be seen,” Branch said.

Joe Straus, Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, discussed controversies regarding the UT System Board of Regents and 2015 legislative session at the 2014 Texas Tribune Festival on Saturday.

Held on campus at the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center, the discussion was moderated by Ross Ramsey, executive editor at The Texas Tribune, who posed a wide range of questions, opening with the upcoming 2015 legislative session.

“Why do you still want this job?” Ramsey said.

Straus, who is facing a challenge for the speakership from Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco, said he does not think his work is done.

“We have a lot of work still ahead of us,” Straus said. “This is my fourth election as speaker. It will be the fourth, very different House of Representatives than the first time I was elected as speaker.”

According to Straus, the relationship between Republicans and Democrats in the House is vital to the legislature's success.

“I try to help manage the House to set an example that is unlike Washington, D.C.,” Straus said. “I don’t worry about politics too much, as long as we get our job done.”

Ramsey posed a series of questions about the current relationship between the Board of Regents and the Texas Legislature. Straus said he thinks there is a disproportionate focus on the goings on at UT.

“I’m sick of [UT] being the only campus in the state of Texas that gets this much attention,” Straus said. “It’s crazy. It’s too much focus on UT-Austin, too much turmoil here. It all ties back, I believe, to the disfunction of the Board of Regents.”

In 2013, Straus authorized the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations to open an investigation into Regent Wallace Hall. In August, the committee censured Hall.

Also in August, the UT System hired a risk mitigation response firm to conduct an external investigation into UT’s admissions process after questions where raised about whether letters of recommendations sent directly to President Powers from state legislators or other influential individuals had any impact on admissions decisions. The System previously conducted its own investigation and found no structured system of wrongdoing.

Straus said he does not have a problem writing college recommendation letters for college applicants.

“I’m happy to do it, but very clearly there’s no expectation that [the student] will get in because I write a letter,” Straus said. "I don’t think another investigation is necessary. People write letters. Every letter I write I expect to see it on the front page of the newspaper – I’m not embarrassed about it.”

Straus said he is hopeful the turmoil on the board is coming to an end.

“It think it’s a manufactured issue,” Straus said. “You have to have some faith and confidence in your administrators...I think it’s an excellent thing that [Admiral William McRaven] is coming in and I have very high expectations for everyone. Our new governor will be making some appointments to the board. I think we’re, hopefully, about to work our way through this.”

Government junior Shalaka Joshi said she was intrigued by Straus’ discussion of the current state of the regents.

“His thoughts on what’s happening at UT and with the Board of Regents were interesting, and I agreed with him when he talked about how the process needs to be depoliticized and that the quality of the University should be the most important thing,” Joshi said.

Photo Credit: Ethan Oblak | Daily Texan Staff

In a public interview with The Texas Tribune on Thursday, UT System Regent Wallace Hall said the Travis County district attorney will take his case to a grand jury to investigate him for his alleged release of confidential student information.

In a room filled with both supporters and critics, Hall said he takes student privacy seriously and denied committing any acts of wrongdoing.

“It would be nicer if they closed the file and moved on, but I’ll go through the process,” Hall said. “I am very comfortable with all the actions that I took with those documents.”

In April, the district attorney’s Public Integrity Unit opened a criminal investigation. Thursday, after the event, a district attorney spokesman confirmed the case against Hall will be brought before a grand jury in the coming weeks. 

The allegations stem from Hall’s personal investigations into the University, from which he brought up issues with the University’s admissions process. In July 2013, after going through thousands of University documents, Hall found two emails that led to a System inquiry into legislative influence in the University’s admissions. While the inquiry found no systematic wrongdoing, Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa commissioned an external investigation into admissions in July.

Hall said the primary reason he conducted his investigation and announced his findings to the Board of Regents was because of his desire for transparency in the admissions process.

“If we want the senators and House representatives to be able to get people into universities, let’s just be up front about it,” Hall said. “That’s what I’m pushing for.”

After state legislators accused him of overstepping his authority, Hall became the subject of a House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations investigation in June 2013. A year and two months later, the committee censured Hall, citing, among other actions, his alleged disclosure of personal student information to his lawyers. 

“The committee today — at length — sets out its understanding that Mr. Hall’s actions have crossed the line from remaining informed and engaged to violating his regental and fiduciary duties,” the document states. “Not only did Mr. Hall’s demands and conduct create a toxic environment on the University of Texas at Austin campus and within the System, but the manner in which that conduct was undertaken was simply not constructive taken as a whole.”

Paul Hastings, one of the event attendees and a senior at Thomas Edison State College, believes Hall is innocent and started making and selling pro-Wallace Hall T-shirts with slogans like “Hook ’em Wallace” and “Keep Calm and Wallace On.”

Hastings said his family is from Thailand, where people need political connections to receive basic needs, such as health care, instead of just for getting into college. Hastings said in a country like the U.S., which is supposed to stand for truth and justice, Hall should be regarded as a hero.

“Wallace Hall is being reprimanded for doing the right thing,” Hastings said.

Hall also believes in his own innocence. During their discussion Thursday, he told Evan Smith, editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune, that since the committee’s decision in August, he has continued to be “unabated” in conducting his System governing duties.

“I certainly don’t feel in any way diminished,” Hall said. “If the transparency committee truly thought that I had violated the law, shouldn’t they have brought articles of impeachment against me?”

Horns Down: Perry potentially violated criminal law

According to The Texas Tribune on Tuesday, emissaries of Gov. Rick Perry offered to restore funding to the office of embattled Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg if she resigned, even after his veto of the office’s funding was carried out. This, as The Texas Observer points out, clearly strengthens the case against the governor that is currently being considered by a grand jury. Last April, Lehmberg was arrested for drunk driving. After her arrest and subsequent guilty plea that resulted in a 45-day jail sentence — an extremely harsh punishment for a first-time offender — Perry threatened to veto funding to Lehmberg’s Public Integrity Unit, an agency that prosecutes public corruption cases, if Lehmberg didn’t step down. Somewhat ironically, Perry is now under investigation by a grand jury for having potentially violated the criminal statute against “Bribery and Corrupt Influence.” The veto itself, according to Perry’s accusers, may not have violated law, but the fact that he threatened the veto very well could have. And now that reports have surfaced that Perry’s people may have offered to restore funding if Lehmberg resigns, the possibility that the governor may have violated the law is even stronger. While we certainly don’t condone Lehmberg’s drunk driving, horns down to a situation that is looking increasingly like an abuse of official power to achieve a political end.

Horns Up: UT clinic brings attention to prisoner’s rights

On Tuesday, the UT Human Rights Clinic released a report which identified high summer temperatures inside Texas prisons as a both a human rights violation and a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Currently, 79 of the state’s 109 prisons lack air conditioning, and, although there have been no studies analyzing the potential cost, officials claim that retrofitting the facilities with central air would be extremely expensive — which in no way excuses our prisons’ lack of this crucial utility. Prisoners’ rights are far too often ignored in our discourse, so horns up to the clinic for bringing much-needed attention to this issue.

Horns Down: even more problems for juvenile justice

Another blow was dealt to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department on Wednesday when it was announced that the agency was set to get its third director in a month. As The Texas Tribune reported, Linda Brooke, the agency’s current interim executive director, is leaving for a job in Fort Worth. Brooke could be replaced by David Riley, chief juvenile probation officer for Bexar County. Last month, State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, blasted the agency for its inefficient spending, high re-arrest and re-incarceration rates and a failure to sufficiently segregate violent offenders from nonviolent offenders. Given those problems, the agency is as in need of a strong and consistent leader as ever, making it even more of a disappointment that it doesn’t seem likely to get one anytime soon. Horns down to the revolving door of juvenile justice department directors.

Yesterday, The Texas Tribune published a revealing story about UT System Regent Wallace Hall Jr. 

These days, Hall is best known on campus and at the Capitol for his apparent mission to unseat UT President William Powers Jr. Specifically, Hall proposed and received approval from the other regents on March 20 to fund an investigation of forgivable loans given from a private foundation to law school faculty, even though the Texas attorney general signed off on a previous investigation, the results of which placed no blame on Powers — who served as dean of the law school before becoming UT president — for “lack of transparency” related to the loans.

According to the Tribune story, Hall shares his own lack-of-transparency moment: When he was being vetted after the governor nominated him as a regent, he omitted mention of several lawsuits to which he had been a party, despite a requirement he do so.  

“The lawsuits themselves may or may not prove embarrassing to Hall, but the failure to disclose them provides fodder to critics who think the UT regents are on a ‘witch hunt’ to hurt its flagship university and take out its leader,” the Tribune reports.

Among those “critics” the Tribune article cites are state senators.

In December, when covering the development that Gene Powell, chairman of the UT System Board of Regents, failed to disclose his connection to a company the board had selected to build a new children’s hospital — at the time the company the board selected had a pending business deal with a company Powell co-founded with his son — this editorial board said, “for a public official, the appearance of a conflict of interest often drains public trust as irrevocably as a verified one.” The same observation applies to Hall’s omissions from his regent application. Powell didn’t view his connection to the hospital as relevant information. 

Yesterday, in response to the Tribune’s questions, Hall called his omissions unintentional. “I do not recall the specifics,” Hall wrote in an email to the Tribune. “I have been asked by the governor’s office to supplement my disclosure and will do so shortly.” The brevity of Hall’s explanation starkly contrasts with his aggressive pursuit of Powers’ possible vulnerabilities due to the law school loans. We are disappointed and disillusioned by Hall’s apparent failure to disclose information, but we also aren’t surprised.

The missing Hall lawsuits is the latest development in the power struggle between the Board of Regents, the Texas Senate and the UT administration, yet not a decisive one. This development suggests two things we already suspected: First, the regents consider themselves policy-setting, appointed judges. In their view, their sole responsibility is to scrutinize administrators they are charged with overseeing. Second, they do not view themselves as public officials who should be subject to the same scrutiny as others. But that scrutiny is what the Legislature is applying, evident in one state senator’s sharp comments in reaction to the disclosures about Hall’s omissions. 

“Clearly this was withheld. It would seem to indicate Mr. Hall felt like it was disqualifying for his nomination,” Higher Education Committee Chairman Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, told the Tribune. “Withholding that, I think, is a very, very serious thing.”

The regents, the administration and the legislators in this fight are digging for dirt on one another. In our online age when the splashiest “gotcha” moment has the potential to derail a career, each side attempts to catch the other lest they be caught themselves.

After all that has happened, distrust, and possible loathing, must thrive among the politicians, the regents and the administration. As this brawl gets uglier, we expect Gov. Rick Perry and certain members of the Legislature to emerge from behind the curtain and openly enter the arena.     

We don’t know who will win and who will lose. But we know this fight is no longer about the long-term goals of this University, but rather about the short-term employment and power grabs of those who govern it.

UT System Regent Wallace Hall Jr. failed to disclose his involvement in at least six past lawsuits in his December 2010 application to serve as a regent, according to documents obtained by The Texas Tribune.

Hall, who has been vocal about his desire for more transparent leadership at UT, did not mention six state and federal lawsuits on his application or during the 2011 nomination process.

“I think it’s another sign that we as students need to be continuously watching the actions of the regents,” Senior Michael Morton, Senate of College Councils president said. “It’s a little hypocritical of Hall to not disclose this information yet also be making all these data requests and be engaged in the micromanagement of the University. It’s a hypocritical action and one I’m glad members of the legislature have already begun to speak out against.”

Hall has made several efforts to increase UT administration’s transparency in the last several months, making far-reaching requests for boxes worth of open records. At a recent hearing about the relationship between the UT School of Law and the Law School Foundation, Hall defended the board’s decision to continue an external review of the foundation by saying the System continues to receive documents not included in his initial open records request. 

System spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo declined to make a statement on behalf of the Board of Regents and said all questions should be forwarded to Hall.