state legislature

Mayor Steve Adler speaks at a press conference Monday after meeting with eight other Texas mayors. The mayors met at the Headliner’s club to discuss SB 182 and HB 365, both of which place caps on the property taxes that Texas homeowners pay.
Photo Credit: Carlo Nasisse | Daily Texan Staff

Mayor Steve Adler and eight other Texas mayors met with representatives of the state legislature Monday to discuss property tax revenue caps across Texas.

Mayors from Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Fort Worth, El Paso, Corpus Christi, Arlington and Plano lined up at the Headliner’s Club to voice their concern about SB 182 and HB 365. Both bills place caps on the property taxes Texas homeowners pay. 

Adler said property tax caps from the state legislature take away city governments’ ability to decide where to collect revenue, how much to collect, obliterating the control of local governments over their communities.

“It’s the ordinances that a local city adopts that reflects its values [and] is something we hope will be honored by the rest of the state,” Adler said.

The real issue of SB 182 and HB 365 is self-determination, according to Adler.

“We really only have a few ways to raise revenue in our local economy — property taxes, sales tax and fees,” Adler said. “If we are limited or capped in one area, it logically follows that we have to raise it in another area. Students could feel this pinch, even if they are not property owners.”

Adler also said the property tax caps could extend into other areas of local control that may need specific protections, such as Barton Springs Pool. 

“This uniqueness of how we live in Austin should be determined at the local level,” Adler said. “Students come to UT not just for the education, but to enjoy this Austin lifestyle. The environment and creative culture are very valuable to us here, and we need to be able to govern these things in our own way.”

Corpus Christi Mayor Nelda Martinez said the state legislature needs to understand that the strong economic growth of the state comes from local government managing their cities the way they choose.

“What we need to do is make sure our hands are not tied,” Martinez said. “We know our cities, and we know our legislators have been able to experience the wonderful Texas growth that we’ve had, so we want to be able to collaborate and work in that manner. But revenue caps is not the answer. It would set us back.”

Martinez said different cities prioritize different items on their budgets. She said the Texas legislature may not take issues such as emergency preparedness into consideration.

“[In] every city in the state of Texas, you have unique services, unique reactions, also depending if you live on the gulf coast,” Martinez said. “What happens when you go through the hurricane season, and you have to respond to emergency preparedness as well? Because we’re all unique, we know how to deal with budgets that are unique to our citizens.” 

El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser also stressed the main idea of the day: local control. 

“We came to kind of work together … to talk about how we can continue to unite,” Leeser said. “We talk together and have the same voice but understand every city has a unique need and we want to make sure we continue to have the ability to represent the people that elected us.”

Horns Up: One step closer to Regent Hall's departure

On Monday, The Texas Tribune reported that information uncovered as part of the investigation of the Select Committee on Transparency in State Agencies on possible criminal actions committed by UT System Regent Wallace Hall had been referred to Travis County prosecutors. For those of you keeping track, we are now in third year of the latest fight between the UT System Board of Regents, UT-Austin and the State Legislature. In the past two years, that fight has strayed considerably from its ideological roots in differences over higher education to the realm of sloppy and distracting personal fights between members of the board and UT President William Powers Jr. Despite numerous cries for Hall’s resignation, it’s become clear that Hall, who is being investigated for impeachment, is reluctant to back down. While we’re frustrated every time Hall makes it into the headlines, a potential criminal case against him coming from Travis County prosecutors may be the final push he needs to leave the board. And if that happens, then maybe, just maybe, we can start talking about higher education policy about as often as we’ve been talking about Hall’s transgressions. Horns Up to potentially being one step closer to Hall’s early departure from the Board of Regents.

Horns Down: After West, fertilizer regulations needed

On Monday, nearly a year after the West fertilizer plant explosion killed 15 people and injured nearly 160, Texas’ chief fire marshal testified in front of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee on the need for structural changes in 46 Texas facilities which house ammonium nitrate. However, committee members were quick to say that any regulations would encounter resistance from business owners. Given the magnitude of the tragedy, we hope that both business owners and the legislature can reach a compromise that puts in place the necessary safety measures.

Horns Up: Committee says Hall may have broken the law

According to a 176-page draft report obtained by the San Antonio Express-News and the Houston Chronicle, UT System Regent Wallace Hall likely committed impeachable offenses — including abusing his power, leaking confidential information in an attempt to silence critics in the state legislature and attempting to coerce UT administrators to alter their testimony in committee hearings — and may even have violated state and federal law. The report was drafted by a House committee tasked with investigating Hall and his potential misconduct. While we can’t say that the report’s accusations come as much of  a surprise, Horns Up to the possibility that the Wallace Hall saga may soon come to an end, and the University administrators can refocus on actual student related issues. That way, we’ll finally be able to focus on something more worthwhile.

 

Horns Down: EEOC complaints on the rise in Texas

According to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report, Texas’ number of workplace discrimination and harassment complaints has increased in recent months. The Frisco Enterprise reported that the commission received 9,068 harassment and discrimination charges last year alone, which is an increase of 2 percent from the year before. While Texas’ incident reports increased, nationally, the number of harassments decreased by 6 percent last year. According to the commission, any unwelcome action based on factors including race, religion, sex, national origin, age or disability can be classified as harassment in the workplace. Horns Down to this unfortunate increase; it’s definitely not a positive outcome of the Texas workforce.

Nash Horne, Student Regent. Photo courtesy of UT System. 

Editor’s Note: Nash Horne is a communication studies senior from Austin who is currently serving as a non-voting member of the UT System Board of Regents, a position to which he was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry. On Tuesday, the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations met to hear testimony in the case of Regent Wallace Hall, who is currently under investigation by the state legislature for possible impeachment in the latest turn in the ongoing drama between UT-Austin, the UT System, the state legislature and the Board of Regents. Horne sat down with the Texan on Wednesday to talk about the situation and his time on the board. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space considerations.

Daily Texan: How would you explain to students what’s going on in the Board of Regents right now, both in regard to the House Transparency Committee’s investigation of Regent Wallace Hall and the claims that there are threats to President Powers' job from the board? 

Nash Horne: I would say that there’s three entities involved here: the board, the individual board members and [the] UT System, and each one is playing a role. Obviously, individually, Regent Wallace Hall and his inquiries into UT-Austin have been called into question, which the committee is investigating. And then there’s [the] System, which has been involved in this as well, as they are the ones that retain all the records. So all three of these people, not to mention UT-Austin, which is a piece of this as well, those four players together are all involved. The board is the board, and each individual regent is a regent. Everyone is appointed and brought forth with their personal rules of governing.

 

DT: What do you think are the governing philosophies of each individual regent?

NH: You know, I really couldn’t answer that, because I’ve never personally sat down and asked them what their philosophies are.

 

DT: You’ve never asked another regent what their philosophy on education is? 

NH: I’ve never had a personal conversation with another regent about that. The Texas Public Open Meetings Act restricts how often we can converse, because if there’s more than two of us [regents] together, we have to convene a formal meeting.

 

DT: So you’ve never met individually with any of the other regents?

NH: No, I have not. I’ve only been to board meetings. But I think the board is looking for a balance: How can we get the highest-quality education to students at the lowest price, and where can we cut things so we can keep the quality but take out some of the frivolous costs that there are? I think that’s what [the other regents] are aiming for [in terms of philosophy].

 

 

DT: In your opinion, is UT-Austin affordable for a sufficient variety of students?

NH: I would say that I don’t have the answer to that question. I would have to go do some research. I think as a board we’re trying to move to make it more accessible to people of different backgrounds.

 

DT: You said earlier that there’s a movement on the board toward cutting frivolous costs while making sure that we maintain the quality of education. What in your time as a regent or a student have you seen that you think constitutes frivolous costs? 

NH: You know, I’d rather not speak to that. There’s certain costs that I know that we talk about frequently as a board and I know the UT system looks into. I know that [Chief Financial Officer] Kevin Hegarty recently came out with a long report from an outside source that talked about [that]. My personal opinion is, if something doesn’t have a benefit for students, then why are we doing it? And I think the board comes at it that way as well.

 

 

DT: You mentioned Kevin Hegarty’s Shared Services Plan. Do you have an opinion on Shared Services? 

NH: You know, I really don’t. I don’t want to speak to that. I haven’t read it thoroughly enough.

 

DT: Going back to the current controversy and the players that you outlined, where does UT-Austin play into this, and is it actually under attack as much as people perceive it as being? 

NH: I think that this process [of the transparency committee impeachment proceedings] is a great thing. Because this is how our government was set up, so that we have checks and balances. With that said, I think that this whole process has taken away from the core mission of achieving excellence for students, both on UT-Austin’s side, in terms of document requests to Regent Hall, and the legislative side in terms of document requests to UT system. A lot of people don’t realize that a lot of the staff at [the] System work tirelessly for our smaller campuses, for instance, a great example is lawyers. UT-Austin has a team of lawyers. But places like UT-Permian Basin [doesn't] have a team of lawyers, so they rely on UT System lawyers. Well, those System lawyers have been drawn away to work on things, document requests and things of that nature, and have put students of those universities away for a second as they work on these document requests. So I think on both sides there’s been some time that was lost that should have been put to students.

 

DT: Going back to the previous question, are UT-Austin leaders justified in feeling attacked by the Board of Regents?

NH: You know, I honestly can say that is a question that President Powers' office and the staff of the president’s office can answer for you. I don’t think I have an answer for you. All I know is what the press has put out, and I wouldn’t want to formulate an opinion on that unless I was there personally.

 

DT: When this argument first started, it seemed like it was more of a conversation about Jeff Sandefer’s "Seven Breakthrough Solutions" for higher education. It now seems that it’s become more of a fight for personal reasons than a fight for higher education’s values. Where do you see it falling? 

NH: You know, I think the best, the most factual evidence we have of where it is, is the fact that we’re investigating Regent Hall for potential impeachment. In terms of Jeff Sandefer, I can honestly attest that I have never heard that brought up in a board meeting by any board member since my term. His name has never been brought up, the seven-I-can’t-even-tell-you-what-they’re-called have never been brought up. I’ve read it in the paper; that’s the only place I’ve ever seen his name. For my point of view, it is personal in that it’s an investigation into whether articles of impeachment are warranted for Regent Hall, but it’s also not personal in that the committee is going to tell us what state regents' roles ought to be.

 

 

DT: Your role is to represent students in the UT System to the Board of Regents. A lot of UT students on campus right now are saying that they stand with President Powers. Do you stand with President Powers?

NH: I have had an excellent education here, and President Powers was the president of the University of Texas at Austin during my time here, and so by that logic, I do [stand with Powers]. He’s the president of the university ... I attend.

 

DT: Should more state funding be appropriated to the UT System?

 

NH: I think that’s a question for the legislature, because they are the ones who decide that. I think what we can do at home is see how most effectively we can cut costs.

 

DT: So if a member of the state legislature is saying, should I up funding to the UT System or should I not, what do you say?

NH: Yeah, absolutely. I would never turn money away.

 

DT: But do you believe more money should be directed to the UT System? 

NH: Should? I don’t know if I want to answer that. But would I accept it? Yeah.

 

DT: What’s the ideal outcome from the House transparency committee hearings?

NH:  The ideal outcome is, first of all, that it would come to an end in a timely matter. I think the faster we can get past this and back to focusing on students, the better.

Retired Texas teachers may soon be seeing a boost in their financial benefits if two bills filed for the 2013 legislative session pass.

State Reps. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, and Armando “Mando” Martinez, D-Weslaco, each filed bills earlier this month to increase financial benefits for those receiving pensions from the Teacher Retirement System of Texas, a group that has not seen an increase in its pensions since 2001.

The retirement system serves Texas public education employees including eligible employees at UT and is governed by the state legislature. It is the largest public retirement system in Texas in terms of membership and assets, with 1,316,566 participants and $101 billion in net assets as of Sept. 30, 2011, according to its website.

Gonzales’ bill would allow the state legislature to more easily provide supplemental payments to those retirees. Currently, the state legislature must request additional funding from the state’s general revenue to make such a payment, and the bill would allow them to do so without taking that step.

Bill Barnes, legislative coordinator for Texas Retired Teachers Association, said his organization supports Gonzales’ bill because it could be used to help supplement the buying power retirees have lost since 2001.

“That buying power has gone down by more than 30 percent,” Barnes said.

He said only one supplemental payment for the retirees has been approved by the state legislature in the last 10 years, and it was in 2005.

Barnes said the Texas Retired Teachers Association also endorses Martinez’s bill, which would provide a more consistent means of retirement funding for seniors. The bill would provide for a cost of living increase based on the percentage change in inflation reflected in the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers, a number that has most recently been published by the United States Department of Labor.

Scott Jenkines, chief of staff for Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez, said the bill is needed to give teachers increased stability in their pensions. 

“When they retire the vast majority of them do not get Social Security, so they rely on their teacher retirement,” Jenkines said. 

Social Security payments change each year in accordance with the index.

Jenkines said budgetary constraints within the legislature and a general anti-government attitude in Texas will be the biggest obstacles for the passage of Martinez’s and similar bills.

“It’s going to be tough. No denying it’s going to be tough,” Jenkines said.

He said he believes passing the bills is possible, and that it will be easier to tell where the legislature stands on the bills once the 2013 session begins. 

Printed on Thursday, November 29, 2012 as: Texas retired teacher benefits may rise

The Senate of College Councils has launched a campaign to increase student outreach to Texas legislatures, said President Carisa Nietsche.

The Senate is working together in conjunction with Student Government and the Graduate Student Assembly on the Higher Ed at Home initiative. It aims to get students in contact with their local state legislators to explain why higher education matters to their constituents even if there is not a university in their district.

Higher Ed at Home is the first initiative of the 2012 Invest in Texas campaign, a non-partisan student-led campaign focused on lobbying the state legislature for issues that students care about.

“Higher Ed at Home was designed to make the issues of higher education a local issue,” Nietsche said. “It really shows that constituents care about higher education.”

Despite the fact that it is not a legislative year, the Senate is still working to prepare for the next legislative session, said Invest in Texas campaign spokesman Michael Morton.

“I hope that students take initiative over spring break and go talk to their legislators,” Nietsche said.

The efforts of the campaign have not gone unnoticed by the state legislators, Morton said.

“We have had really positive responses,” Morton said. “Especially with the voter ID issue. Representative Dan Branch has been very helpful in getting this changed.”

Even though 25 organizations and many students have been involved in the endeavor, the Senate is always looking for more people to participate, Morton said.

“A lot of the efforts are going into outreach to different organizations and just not politically oriented ones,” Morton said. “We even tried a postcard campaign to get more students involved.”

Although the campaign fought to reduce budget cuts, the University was still affected, receiving a $92 million cut from the legislature.

“There have been cuts in staff and some faculty reduction, but the University has tried to limit academic cuts so as not to affect the students,” said Mary Knight, associate vice president and budget director for the University.

“Anytime the students carry the message to their legislature, it is very effective because legislators listen very carefully and take both sides into consideration,” she said. “Last session, students from many organizations went to campus and spoke both for and against the issues.”

Printed on Wednesday, January 25, 2012 as: Senate advocates for student involvement in Texas legislature

Senator John Cornyn speaks with Shelby county judge Rick Campbell after the Post-Legislative Conference at Hilton Hotel ballroom on Friday morning. The conference, attended by county elected officials, covered how 82nd Texas legislative session will affect Texas counties and how the budget will operate.

Photo Credit: Mary Kang | Daily Texan Staff

As the federal government and Texas Legislature shave millions off their operating budgets, the cost for vital programs and services — including Health and Human Services and the courts — are shifted locally to counties, according to county officials.

County officials representing 189 of Texas’ 254 counties gathered at the Post-Legislative Conference in Austin last week to discuss what happened at the 82nd Texas legislature and what it means as they prepare their budgets for the upcoming fiscal year.

“What the Legislature does trickles down to the county level,” said Paul Sugg, the legislative director for the Texas Association of Counties. “When the Legislature starts cutting programs that they fund, that tends to devolve on [the counties’] backs so we are always worried about what happens at the appropriations process.”

During this session, state legislators cut historic preservation grants by 85 percent, from $9 million to $1.4 million; decreased local library funds by 72 percent, from $35 million to $10 million; and cut all $9 million previously allocated to reintegration programs for offenders, according to a comparison chart on Texas Association of Counties’ website.

The Texas Legislature cut total expenditures by 5 percent from last session. That’s a total of $236 million less in state spending. If county officials decide to continue providing services that were cut by the state legislature, the counties must absorb these costs.

“We have this challenge to continue providing adequate services,” said Travis County Commissioner Ron Davis. “Taxpayers will complain if we cut services. On the other hand, they will complain if I raise taxes. Ultimately, the blame will go on [the county] — it’s really a catch-22.”

Elna Christopher, a spokeswoman for the Texas Association of Counties, said cutting funding to services like the court system is not an option.

“It tends to be discretionary services like libraries or Meals On Wheels that get cut,” Christopher said. “Then again, constituents expect those services, and maybe they’re willing to pay a penny more in taxes to get those services.”

Davis said Travis County is exploring all efficiency and cost-cutting options. Counties rely on property taxes to fund services, so increased costs that are passed down from the state ultimately impact the property taxpayer.

Davis said he doesn’t want to increase the property tax rate in Travis County. The fiscal year begins Oct. 1, and county officials, such as Davis, will have one month to balance the budget. However, their real concern is much further in the future.

“We’re riding this out with an eye forward to 2013,” Sugg said. “I think there is a county consensus out there that the 2013 legislative session is going to be much worse.”

Senator John Cornyn made an appearance at the conference and said he remains optimistic about Texas’ future, citing an average annual job growth of 3.6 percent since 1990, which is markedly higher than the nation’s average of 1 percent.

“The United States is continuing to struggle, and we continue to struggle, but we are blessed to live in a state that’s doing better than the rest of America,” Cornyn said.

With cuts to higher education on the horizon and textbook costs rising, college affordability is on the minds of many students, Texas student government leads said at a conference to set lobbying goals for the next legislative session.

The Texas Students Association, a group of student government leaders from Texas colleges and universities, met this weekend and voted to prioritize these topics when they lobby at the state legislature in the session that begins in January. The lobbying goals — tax free textbooks, maintaining state funding of universities — impact all students, representatives said.

“We have so many opportunities this legislative session to make a difference,” said John Lawler, the association’s chair and a liberal arts representative in UT’s Student Government. “These are things that if you walk up to a student on the sidewalk and ask if they support this, you won’t find anyone who doesn’t agree.”

Issues like domestic partner benefits, which would provide insurance benefits to the partners of GLBT employees, and concealed carry on campus did not make the list of legislative goals because it would be hard to accomplish goals that fall along such partisan lines, Lawler said.

Questions of partisanship came up anyway, as some representatives questioned whether the state legislature would be willing to prioritize higher education funding and financial aid while it tries to fill the estimated $21 billion budget shortfall in the spring. However, the group voted to go ahead with a push for increased funding and financial aid.

“I don’t care that it’s a Republican congress, if we want it and students want it, we should go get it,” said Oliver Sudduth about the fight against higher education budget cuts. Sudduth, an associate justice with the University of Houston-Downtown believes increasing state funding to higher education is a key part of keeping universities from having to raise tuition.

Campus Progress, the youth outreach arm of the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, cosponsored the association’s Saturday conference, donating $400 to cover the event’s costs and provided a speaker to inform the representatives about the different avenues of state lobbying.

“It’s important for these students to continue to fight, because the fight for affordable education is a national fight, not just a Texas fight,” said Angela Peoples, the policy and advocacy manager of Campus Progress. “This is the kind of thing Campus Progress looks for to help students on the ground to help them advocate for what’s important to them.”

With cuts to higher education on the horizon and textbook costs rising, college affordability is on the minds of many students, Texas student government leads said at a conference to set lobbying goals for the next legislative session.

The Texas Students Association, a group of student government leaders from Texas colleges and universities, met this weekend and voted to prioritize these topics when they lobby at the state legislature in the session that begins in January. The lobbying goals — tax free textbooks, maintaining state funding of universities — impact all students, representatives said.

“We have so many opportunities this legislative session to make a difference,” said John Lawler, the association’s chair and a liberal arts representative in UT’s Student Government. “These are things that if you walk up to a student on the sidewalk and ask if they support this, you won’t find anyone who doesn’t agree.”

Issues like domestic partner benefits, which would provide insurance benefits to the partners of GLBT employees, and concealed carry on campus did not make the list of legislative goals because it would be hard to accomplish goals that fall along such partisan lines, Lawler said.

Questions of partisanship came up anyway, as some representatives questioned whether the state legislature would be willing to prioritize higher education funding and financial aid while it tries to fill the estimated $21 billion budget shortfall in the spring. However, the group voted to go ahead with a push for increased funding and financial aid.

“I don’t care that it’s a Republican congress, if we want it and students want it, we should go get it,” said Oliver Sudduth about the fight against higher education budget cuts. Sudduth, an associate justice with the University of Houston-Downtown believes increasing state funding to higher education is a key part of keeping universities from having to raise tuition.

Campus Progress, the youth outreach arm of the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, cosponsored the association’s Saturday conference, donating $400 to cover the event’s costs and provided a speaker to inform the representatives about the different avenues of state lobbying.

“It’s important for these students to continue to fight, because the fight for affordable education is a national fight, not just a Texas fight,” said Angela Peoples, the policy and advocacy manager of Campus Progress. “This is the kind of thing Campus Progress looks for to help students on the ground to help them advocate for what’s important to them.”

UT increased tuition and fees by 134 percent since 1999, according to a new report from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Adjusted for inflation, the University raised tuition at the second-highest rate among its 11 peer institutions, which UT uses for national comparison purposes. In-state tuition and fees rose from $4,020 in 1999 to $9,418 in 2010. Among peer universities, only UC-Berkeley’s tuition and fees had a higher percentage increase at 139 percent.

The biggest spike came the spring after tuition deregulation passed in 2003, when UT increased its in-state tuition and fees by 57 percent. Since tuition deregulation, UT increased its tuition and fees 91 percent overall.

The state faced a projected budget shortfall of $10 billion in 2003 and state leadership asked the UT System to cut 7 percent of its budget.

The UT System responded by proposing to give free tuition to students whose families earn less than $41,000 in exchange for tuition deregulation, a measure to transfer tuition-setting authority from the state legislature to the UT System Board of Regents.

Charles Miller, then-chairman of the UT System Board of Regents, said tuition deregulation would not necessarily mean an increase in tuition.

“People will eventually see that this is a better way to do this if they examine it carefully over time,” Miller said in 2003.

State agencies, including UT, once again face the possibility of a 10 percent budget cut during the next legislative session after a 5 percent budget cut this year. But the regents and other chief administrators have not considered raising tuition to make up for those cuts as they wait for more concrete information on the budget, said Kevin Hegarty, UT’s chief financial officer.

Hegarty said although tuition increases in 2004 and 2006 were relatively large — UT raked in $9 million more in tuition in 2004 — they followed years of small increases while the state legislature regulated tuition despite the rising costs of higher education.

“There were a number of years that went by, during which the way UT had balanced its budget was to provide less-than-market salary increases and not maintain its buildings,” Hegarty said.

After the two large increases, the following increases were relatively small, he said. According to UT data, the average tuition increase was 13 percent from 1990 to 2003 and only 8 percent from 2003 to 2009 — last year, it rose 4 percent.

Mark Kantowitz, publisher of FinAid.org, said the problem is not tuition deregulation, it’s the reduction in state support of the institution and state legislatures’ tendency to increase tuition substantially only when they have to.

Kantowitz said it’s not unusual for states to have several years without substantial tuition increases followed by a very large increase.

“When the colleges themselves can control tuition, it’s much less likely to go through these cycles,” he said.

Adjusted for inflation, state support actually decreased by 1 percent per year since 1990 and tuition surpassed state funds as a source of the University’s revenue, according to a UT report on tuition. Tuition increases could have been “substantially lower” during those years if the state had provided more funding, according to the report.

Kantowitz said during recessions, public universities often raise tuition by double digits because of falling state revenues.

“The first thing they cut is support of higher education,” he said.