Senate Finance Committee

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A $6.6 billion emergency spending bill to mostly cover unpaid Medicaid costs is closer to landing on Gov. Rick Perry's desk.

The Senate on Tuesday passed the measure after Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis withdrew an amendment that sought to tack on $400 million more in public education spending. Republican Sen. Tommy Williams, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, told Davis that conversation needs to wait for another spending bill.

Budget writers say doctors and hospitals won't get paid unless the Legislature this month approves the emergency bill that includes $4.5 billion for Medicaid costs. Another $1.8 billion in the bill reverses a deferred public school payment that lawmakers in 2011 moved off the books to help close a massive budget shortfall.

The bill now moves back to the Hose.

Universities would be required to freeze tuition for the duration of students’ undergraduate degree plans if the Texas Legislature approves a bill filed in the House of Representatives.

The bill, filed Friday by Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, would prohibit universities from charging students who graduate on time a tuition rate higher than the one charged during their first semester or term at a university.

Tuition rates would remain stagnant during a four-year period for undergraduates enrolled in a four-year degree plan and during a five-year period for those enrolled in a five-year degree plan.

This differs from a bill filed by Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, which requires universities to offer students a fixed-rate tuition plan but allows universities to offer other plans. Branch’s bill also does not address students who are enrolled in five-year degree plans.

At a Senate Finance Committee meeting Monday, University of Texas at Austin President William Powers Jr. said after UT-Dallas implemented a fixed-rate tuition plan, the administration at UT-Austin approached student leadership about implementing a similar plan. Powers said administrators did not find much interest in the plan among student groups but having the option to pay a fixed rate may appeal to families paying for students’ tuition.

“Some families will want that. They would rather pay a little bit more than they have to so they can budget better,” Powers said. “Other families won’t want that. They’d rather pay a little less now and then take the risk that it might go up a little bit later. We think a program where different options are offered to students makes a lot of sense.”

Michael Morton, Senate of College Councils president, serves on the University’s Tuition Policy Advisory Committee and said the current proposals surrounding fixed-rate tuition do not properly address students’ individual academic needs. 

“It’s potentially a good thing, but there needs to be more work on the details,” Morton said.

At the Senate Finance Committee meeting, UT-Dallas President David Daniel said his university implemented a fixed-rate tuition option to encourage students to graduate in a timely manner. He said he recommends institutions consider the plan.

“It works great for us, but whether it would work well for anyone else, I cannot say,” Daniel said.

Printed on Tuesday, January 29, 2013 as: Additional bill would mandate fixed tuition 

82nd Legislature

President William Powers Jr. testified before the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday to explain how the budget cuts will hurt UT while students both inside and outside the committee room made their voices heard. The Senate budget bill would cut UT’s budget by $65 million in the 2012-13 biennium. That would force UT to eliminate 90 faculty and 200 staff positions, among other major cuts, Powers said. “We at the University of Texas understand it is a very tough recession,” Powers said. “We’re all tightening our belts and I’m here to say the University of Texas needs to do its part and we’re ready to do that.” Students from advocacy organization The Students Speak testified against the proposed cuts. Members of legislative lobbying group Invest In Texas also attended to hear Powers’ testimony. Student Government President Scott Parks, a member of Invest In Texas, said he fears tuition will increase if UT loses formula funding. The lobbying group includes members of SG, Senate of College Councils, Graduate Student Assembly and other student leaders. “We’re asking the Legislature not to disproportionately cut higher education again in this round of cuts like they did last time,” Parks said. “We took 41 percent of the last cuts. We don’t think that’s fair for us or for the state.” Invest in Texas members testified last month when Powers originally planned to speak, before he was hospitalized with a pulmonary embolism. “We’re really worried about the budget cuts that are proposed,” Parks said. “We know they would have pretty drastic effects on the quality of education at UT, the affordability and diversity. It’s serious, and we want [legislators] to know we’re following the decisions they’re making.” Other students included representatives from the Anthropology Graduate Students Association, the International Socialist Organization and The Students Speak, who wore red shirts that read “No Budget Cuts” and marched from UT to Capitol grounds. Anthropology graduate student Ricardo Ward said the Legislature should use all of the Rainy Day Fund — an emergency fund that currently holds $9.4 billion that lawmakers can use to balance the budget — to avoid cutting any of the public education budget. “We feel like the state Legislature, primarily followed by the administration at UT, is not thinking seriously how these cuts will affect students, staff [and] professors on the University campus,” Ward said. “There needs to be a drastic change in policy.” Powers told the committee his major concern is how the cuts will affect faculty and students. “It will erode our ability to compete nationally to get faculty and make student success improvements,” he said. “We’ll protect them as best we can. That is my biggest concern.” The proposed budget also recommends reducing the number of TEXAS Grants for incoming freshman. Powers said he is concerned about the effects cuts will have in their future. “We’re focusing on these first-year students coming in,” he said. “We don’t want to have a fall-off in the opportunities available for these students.” Powers said UT will play its part in helping balance the budget, but has a similar need to Texas A&M for additional selective funding. “[We need,] if it is possible, in a very selective way, to get some money for some very selective [Tuition Revenue Bond] projects,” he said. “On our campus it would be engineering, on the A&M campus I know it is veterinary medicine. These are things that would position those two campuses two and five years from now.” Powers said Texas was looked up to for its higher education two years ago, but that the same may not be true anymore. “I think [because of] this the budget shortfall across the country and in the state, a lot are questioning the value of higher education,” he said. “It was just the opposite two years ago.” Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said the cuts make him worried about how Texas universities will be able to compete with other campuses around the nation. “I for one am really concerned about some of the proposed cuts in [the Senate budget bill],” he said. “It seems like we’re going backwards, and I feel we had made a lot of progress in higher education last session.”

82nd Legislature

Presidents of UT's six medical branches asked state senators Tuesday to reconsider funding cuts that could impact research, residency slots and overall funding for Texas health-related institutions for the 2012-2013 biennium.

The presidents testified about the potential damage of a proposed $169-million cut to the centers before the Senate Finance Committee. The six branches are part of the UT system and each train medical students while also operating medical centers for patients and research.

“We would have to reduce our residency slots by 50-60 or as many as 100,” said Dr. David Callender, president of the UT Medical Branch at Galveston. “We’re thinking about significant increases in tuition. If we have 2,660 students at $1,000 per student, we would raise a couple million dollars for us for a year and that would be helpful.”

For the second time, UT President William Powers Jr. was not able to testify before the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday after being hospitalized with a pulmonary embolism on Feb. 8. UT spokesman Don Hale said Powers is now recovering at home and will testify in March.

All UT system institutions face cuts as the state Legislature seeks to balance a $27-billion budget shortfall. Callender said the Galveston branch faces unique circumstances after Hurricane Ike cost the school $9 million in repairs in 2008.

“We’re only a couple years removed from a 25-percent reduction in our workforce that occurred following Hurricane Ike,” he said. “We really don’t have a big opportunity to do a significant reduction in workforce to make up budget shortfalls. We’ll have to think of more creative ways.”

Dr. Larry Kaiser, president of the UT Health Science Center at Houston, said the branch has already begun reducing expenses by adding accelerated nursing programs and expanding online interactive classes.

“We already have taken an extensive review of ways to streamline services and coordinate programs more efficiently across our six schools,” he said. “Subsequent restructuring and consolidation efforts remain underway and will result in savings for the state as requested the 5-percent and 2.5-percent cuts in our institution, about $17 million.”

Individual effects of the cuts were different for all branches, but all agreed that if possible, lawmakers should try to allocate more funding within the proposed budget.

“My main recommendation to you today is that you fund the formulas of the health-related institutions as fully as you can,” Kaiser said. “That should be your highest priority.”

82nd Legislature

Students kept their promise to walk to the Capitol to attend a Senate Finance Committee hearing Wednesday despite record-breaking cold weather and President William Powers Jr.’s sudden hospitalization. More than 50 members of Student Government, Senate of College Councils, Graduate Student Assembly and other student organizations shouted “Texas fight” as they marched to the Capitol to kick off the “Invest in Texas” campaign, created to organize students to lobby the Texas Legislature to adequately fund UT, protect financial aid programs and allow the University to stay academically competitive. SG Executive Director Jimmy Talarico said the University budget item was removed from the docket because of Powers’ absence, making student presence all the more important. “President Powers was going to be our biggest advocate at today’s meeting so without him our presence is that much more necessary,” he said. “We’re not just there for UT. We are there for all students across the state.” Similar to the House’s budget proposal, the Senate budget proposed significant cuts to education, reducing financial aid programs by more than $380 million and cutting about $87 million from state and federal money allotted to UT, according to the Senate state budget released last week. Student Government vice president Muneezeh Kabir said she thought student testimonies were compelling and senators were attentive as students gave personal accounts how the budget cuts would effect them. “I was elected to the privilege of representing over 50,000 students, but I have never felt more empowered than when I marched to the Capitol this morning with [many] of them,” she said while testifying. “These students walked through the freezing weather to remind you of the gravity of your task.” Kabir closed her testimony by restating the goals of the Invest in Texas campaign. “We urge you to keep us affordable, keep us safe and keep us competitive,” she said. “We don’t want you to just prioritize us — we want you to invest in us and in so doing, invest in Texas.” Chelsea Adler, Senate of College Councils president, told legislators how she and more than 78,000 other students would be personally affected by reducing the number of TEXAS Grant recipients by half. “Without that program from the state, I would either have to have taken out a large amount of loans, or I would have not been able to attend UT Austin,” Adler told senators. “Receiving the TEXAS Grant and attending UT Austin has allowed me to participate in undergraduate research, serve as a student leader and receive a first-class education.” Adler said students’ perseverance today was a sign that the campaign is getting off to a good start, and she is looking forward to their future lobby day on March 7. “We pretty much had all the odds stacked against us with the weather, the potential snow day, President Powers being hospitalized and even just the 8 a.m. wake-up call, but I think this shows how serious students are about having their voice heard by the Legislature, and I think it’s just a sign of things to come,” she said.

82nd Legislature

Students kept their promise to walk to the Capitol to attend a Senate Finance Committee hearing Wednesday despite record-breaking cold weather and President William Powers Jr.’s sudden hospitalization. More than 50 members of Student Government, Senate of College Councils, Graduate Student Assembly and other student organizations shouted “Texas fight” as they marched to the Capitol to kick off the “Invest in Texas” campaign, created to organize students to lobby the Texas Legislature to adequately fund UT, protect financial aid programs and allow the University to stay academically competitive. SG Executive Director Jimmy Talarico said the University budget item was removed from the docket because of Powers’ absence, making student presence all the more important. “President Powers was going to be our biggest advocate at today’s meeting so without him our presence is that much more necessary,” he said. “We’re not just there for UT. We are there for all students across the state.” Similar to the House’s budget proposal, the Senate budget proposed significant cuts to education, reducing financial aid programs by more than $380 million and cutting about $87 million from state and federal money allotted to UT, according to the Senate state budget released last week. Student Government vice president Muneezeh Kabir said she thought student testimonies were compelling and senators were attentive as students gave personal accounts how the budget cuts would effect them. “I was elected to the privilege of representing over 50,000 students, but I have never felt more empowered than when I marched to the Capitol this morning with [many] of them,” she said while testifying. “These students walked through the freezing weather to remind you of the gravity of your task.” Kabir closed her testimony by restating the goals of the Invest in Texas campaign. “We urge you to keep us affordable, keep us safe and keep us competitive,” she said. “We don’t want you to just prioritize us — we want you to invest in us and in so doing, invest in Texas.” Chelsea Adler, Senate of College Councils president, told legislators how she and more than 78,000 other students would be personally affected by reducing the number of TEXAS Grant recipients by half. “Without that program from the state, I would either have to have taken out a large amount of loans, or I would have not been able to attend UT Austin,” Adler told senators. “Receiving the TEXAS Grant and attending UT Austin has allowed me to participate in undergraduate research, serve as a student leader and receive a first-class education.” Adler said students’ perseverance today was a sign that the campaign is getting off to a good start, and she is looking forward to their future lobby day on March 7. “We pretty much had all the odds stacked against us with the weather, the potential snow day, President Powers being hospitalized and even just the 8 a.m. wake-up call, but I think this shows how serious students are about having their voice heard by the Legislature, and I think it’s just a sign of things to come,” she said.

82nd Legislature

UT President William Powers Jr. was not one of the eight UT System presidents who testified before the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday because he is in the hospital recovering from a pulmonary embolism. The presidents, who represented eight of UT’s 15 system institutions, spoke to encourage legislators to prioritize funding for higher education as they seek to balance a $27 billion budget shortfall. More than a hundred students as well as other educators were also at the meeting. “I am here to underscore the commitment of the board and administration of the UT System to continue to provide high quality, affordable education and to be part of the solution of the economic circumstances of the state of Texas,” said system Vice Chairman Steve Hicks. UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa said the system has reduced spending by $1.4 billion the last five years by avoiding costs and increasing investment earnings. He asked committee members to consider additional university funding to the introduced budget. “The cuts to higher education are deep, they will adversely affect access, affordability and excellence,”Cigarroa said. “Our difficult task before us is to help address this challenge and to mitigate these effects to the fullest extent possible. But, that is not to say that it will not be without pain.” Cigarroa, along with other officials, urged the committee to consider reallocating a greater portion of funds to higher education, citing universities as key generators of working Texans and important research. “If you have the opportunity to allocate more than what the base will represent, it’s my strong opinion that higher education is among the most important investments, even during these difficult times,” he said. UT currently receives $1 in funding for every $10 earned in research grants through the Competitive Knowledge Fund, which is reserved for UT, the University of Houston, Texas Tech and Texas A&M. Cigarroa said the fund is crucial for UT since state funding is calculated based on enrollment rates and UT is near capacity. “For UT Austin, that’s why we pushed for the Competitive Knowledge Fund, which does emphasize excellence in research,” he said. “The only campus that is growing [slowly] is UT Austin because they are at capacity. If you take a look at all the other campuses, they are having record enrollment growth.” State Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said the current funding formula hinders institutions like UT, which is near capacity, adding that there should be an alternative funding formula. Last session, state Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, filed a bill that would offer a different funding formula that would emphasize research. “I recommended different formulas for upper-level institutions based on their classifications and had suggested that if institutions didn’t like the formula they were seeing, they would be given incentives to get to the formula they would like,” Ogden said. “It’s an issue that is now ripe because [Shapiro] brought it up, and I think [Shapiro] needs to pursue it.” About 50 students from UT student lobbying initiative Invest in Texas gathered at the committee meeting to testify in front of Senate members. Invest in Texas includes lobbyists from SG, Senate of College Councils, Graduate Student Assembly and the student body at large. The Senate’s proposed budget for the 2012-2013 biennium included a 41-percent cut to financial aid. “We just wanted to bring students down and show support and show that students do care about funding,” said Blake Baker, financial director of the Senate of College Councils. “This is the time of times for higher education in the state of Texas and at UT Austin. All of us are going to begin pitching in where we can, talking with representatives from our districts to highlight the importance of all our issues — funding being blatant — but also other things like guns on campus.” Powers’ testimony will take place next week after he is released from the hospital. UT spokesman Don Hale has confirmed that Powers is in stable condition.