Texas House of Higher Education Committee to retain most members, commitment to education reforms

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The Texas House of Representatives gained seven Democrats, increasing the number of Democratic seats to 55. Republicans will continue to make up the majority of the House with 95 seats.

Democrats won seven districts previously held by Republicans representatives. Going into the election, Republicans held an overwhelming majority in the House with 102 representatives, while Democrats held 48 seats.

Higher education is expected to play a large part in upcoming legislation as changes to state allocations of university budgets and cuts to financial aid programs have been much discussed during the interim session.

The House Higher Education Committee will not face a member shake-up as all eight of its nine members who were up for re-election will return to the House in January. Committee chairman Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, was re-elected to his fifth term as representative for District 108 with 81.1 percent of the vote.

Branch continually pushes for higher education reform. He authored House Bill 51 in 2009, creating the Tier One Initiative to promote Tier One universities in Texas. While the term has no concrete definition, Tier One identifies significant research institutions.

Branch also helped pass legislation, capping UT’s admission under the Top 10 Percent rule to 75 percent of in-state students for each incoming class. Branch serves as co-chairman of the Joint Oversight Committee of Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency.

The makeup of the higher education committee is more balanced and was previously made up of five Republicans and four Democrats.

Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, beat Republican candidate Robert Thomas for House District 48 with 59 percent despite recent redistricting that changed the district’s makeup.

In 2010, Howard won re-election by just four votes. She was first elected to the House in 2006.

Howard is a friend of higher education and supports restoring funds to financial assistance programs such as TEXAS Grants, the state’s primary need-based financial aid program for in-state college students.

Last week, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board recommended cuts to individual TEXAS Grants to increase the total number of students who receive the award.

Reps. John Raney, R-Huntsville; and Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, defeated their opponents and were re-elected with 61.4 percent and 83.6 percent of the vote, respectively.

Reps. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas; Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas; Tryon Lewis, R-Odessa; and Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, ran unopposed.

The committee could see one new face during the upcoming legislative session with the retirement of Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for District 20. Castro, a champion of affordability and access to higher education, served as a state representative for five terms.

Speaker of the House Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, will have to appoint a new member to the Higher Education Committee. Straus announced appointments in February 2011 after the last election in 2010.