At the Lege, higher ed and beyond

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On Tuesday Jan. 8, the Texas Legislature, which meets every other year, reopened for business. Expect a contentious session, filled with triumph and frustration for onlookers on all sides. We’ll be there to offer our perspective on the issues that affect UT-Austin, but not exclusively. Many UT students have been and will continue to reside in Texas beyond our college years, and what the Legislature does today will affect our adult lives. Here’s a primer on the major issues and debates to watch out for in the months ahead.

The Budget
The day before the session opened, State Comptroller Susan Combs announced that the state will have a $101.4 billion budget to work with this session, with $8.8 billion left over from last year’s budget and $11.8 billion in the “Rainy Day Fund,” which is money the Legislature sets aside for use when it come up short of estimates. That’s more money than anybody expected, but don’t count on it funding the many state projects, most of which suffered budget cuts last year, that are desperately vying for the money (such as state parks, health care, infrastructure and environmental protection). Gov. Rick Perry and other Republican leaders are not in a generous mood. “There are interest groups in the state who view Monday’s revenue estimate as ringing the dinner bell,” Perry scoffed in a speech to the Texas Senate on the Legislature’s opening day.  

Higher Education
As in previous sessions and centuries, the Texas Legislature will probably make the same tired calls for efficiency, four-year graduation rates and outcomes-based funding for Texas public universities. The chairman of the Texas House of Representatives Committee on Higher Education, Rep. Dan Branch (R-Dallas), who recently expressed skepticism at the Republican rank-and-file’s eagerly promised tax cuts, has indicated that those are his priorities for this session. We’d prefer the Legislature to instead re-regulate college tuition levels. Ten years ago, the Legislature voted to allow universities to set their own tuition levels so they could continue slashing governmental higher education funding and force students’ families to make up the difference. That vote is the main culprit behind the skyrocketing cost of a college degree in Texas; since then, tuition levels have doubled at UT, and the income bracket of those who can afford to attend school here has become disproportionately exclusive. If they keep cutting UT’s funding, we will keep paying the difference.

Another issue that will have far-reaching consequences is the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on Fisher v. UT, which will be announced at some point this spring. A lot could happen: If plaintiff Abigail Fisher prevails and UT’s race-conscious admissions policy is struck down, high school GPA could become the only criterion by which students are admitted. Ironically, according to admissions statistics in recent years, the group that would be hurt the most by such an outcome would be affluent, mostly white kids from competitive suburban high schools whom the holistic process favors. If UT wins, the rule guaranteeing admission to the top 8 percent of a high school’s graduating class could itself come under fire. Texas Senate Higher Education Committee Chairman Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Panhandle and Permian Basin) has told The Daily Texan that he doesn’t like the government dictating the admissions of a majority of an incoming class. Whatever the Court decides, it’ll be a big deal.

There are other issues as well. Ever since Perry signed in-state tuition for undocumented students into law 10 years ago, it’s faced a great deal of criticism from the right. Unusually, Perry takes a moderate position on this issue, so even if legislators attempt to repeal that policy this session they’ll have to get it past him.

Public Education
The enormous, $5.4 billion public education funding cut made last session is taking its toll. Public schools face out-of-control class sizes, fees for extracurricular activities and school buses, while their teachers have zero job security. In spite of those cost-cutting measures, which mean retrograde education quality, the schools can’t cover payroll. In desperation, two-thirds of Texas’ school districts have sued the state for the money they need. Those lawsuits are ongoing, and regardless of which way the courts rule, the outcome will have major consequences for Texas children enrolled in public school now and in future years.

Water
Be fearful. The 2012 incarnation of the State Water Plan, which is released every five years by the Texas Water Development Board, recommends spending $53 billion on improved water management strategies to avoid drastic consequences which could develop several decades down the road. Texas’ population is skyrocketing, especially in already overtaxed areas like the Valley, and according to the TWDB we’ll be dry as a bone by 2060 if nothing is done now. Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio) is currently leading efforts to pass a $1 billion allocation from the Rainy Day Fund, but that measure is not guaranteed. The new surplus may change the political climate, and leaders and lobbyists on both sides of the aisle have said that better water strategies are a priority. For most of today’s college students’ lives, state leaders have ignored the TWDB’s water management funding recommendations. If they continue that pattern the water supply will stop meeting demand in our lifetimes and likely our young adulthoods.