Texas House of Representatives

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.

Editor’s note: This week, the Texas House of Representatives’ Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations has heard public testimony concerning UT System Regent Wallace Hall’s conduct vis-a-vis UT-Austin. Beginning in the fall of 2012, Hall overwhelmed UT officials with open records requests for over 120,000 documents, leading many at UT and in the state legislature to allege that he was on a “witch hunt,” with the goal of creating sufficient grounds for the dismissal of UT-Austin President William Powers Jr. The Committee will attempt to determine whether, as his opponents have argued, Hall should be impeached and removed from office. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday the Committee heard from several witnesses, including lawyers for Hall and the UT System, Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie — one of Hall’s most prominent critics — and former UT System General Counsel Barry Burgdorf, who resigned in 2013 after submitting a report on unfairly favorable loans granted to UT law school faculty. Burgdorf claims he was encouraged to leave after several regents, Hall foremost among them, wanted his report to lay more blame at Powers’ feet. What follows are some of the hearings’ highlights.

“It’s the first real hearing, but we don’t have a clue what’s going on ... It’s kind of like they’re throwing an impeachment, but we’re not really invited.”

-Allan Van Fleet, lawyer for UT regent Wallace Hall on Monday

“It will be a step toward public disclosure as to what happened and description from live witnesses, as opposed to people announcing their own side of the issue ... The committee’s name is ‘transparency,’ and I think the public will get a chance to look and see what happened and judge for themselves, as will the committee.”

-Committee special counsel Rusty Hardin

“In my opinion Mr. Hall has gone on a fishing expedition in hopes of finding something, anything with which he can use to oust President Powers. If he was truly trying to measure compliance, why would he only target one institution out of the fifteen in the University of Texas System?”

-Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, on Tuesday

“Are regents above the law? Transparency in government does not trump the privacy of those involved.”

-Pitts on Tuesday

“We do not have to show Mr. Hall broke the law, we only have to show misconduct and abuse of power.”

-Pitts on Tuesday

“I do believe that there is enough evidence to show that Mr. Hall should not be allowed to continue in his current capacity as a regent.”

-Pitts on Tuesday

“The chancellor [Francisco Cigarroa] met with me and told me that Regent Hall was unhappy with me and the regents aligned with him were unhappy, they were going to make my life difficult.”

-Former UT System general counsel Barry Burgdorf on Wednesday 

On April 4, the Texas House of Representatives passed the state budget for the next two years. Who were the winners? Gun owners? Teachers? Republicans? Sure, but those groups always win. This time, the LGBT community of Texas secured a small, but not unnoticed, victory.

With a passionate group cheering on the event, Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, pulled his own amendment off the House floor. The failure of the amendment to pass, which would have stripped funding for gender and sexuality centers in state institutions of higher education (University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M and University of Houston), was a win for a group that has rarely been a winner in the Texas Legislature. It was largely thanks to UT students from Texas StandOut (a queer advocacy group on campus) that LGBT students in Texas were given a voice.

How did a group of college students cause change in times when people’s voices are drowned out by a bureaucratic government and viral Internet sound bites? Did they parade around the Capitol and cause massive unrest? No. Did they argue that what Zedler was doing was morally wrong and unfair? No. Did they denigrate Zedler by calling him “prejudiced” and “backward?” No. Instead, they did it by using facts — not public opinion.

The students of Texas StandOut realized that if they fought a war on principles, they would lose. This is, after all, the Texas Legislature, and the conservative views of most representatives are not favorable toward the LGBT community. But that didn’t matter. The students proved that our representatives can make an informed decision when given the right facts and qualified information.

Zedler had proposed the amendment on the basis that these centers increase the rates of people who can contract HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis B and other sexually transmitted diseases. Contrary to his beliefs, study after study has shown that such centers actually lower the number of people who get these diseases. Also, these diseases are not limited to the gay and transgender communities, but instead are diseases that are common in the entire population. These centers are helping, not hurting.

Zedler’s office offered no comment on this story. It was a good answer on his part. What else could you say if an amendment you proposed that clearly lacked merit was struck down by both sides of the aisle? That is the result of a conversation on policy by a well-informed electorate.

Frequently in politics, we get stuck in a conversation based on personal views. Some people believe a woman should have a choice on aborting a child while others believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. No one’s hands are clean, as Republicans and Democrats have both made every single issue an issue of personal belief. Whether it is health care, gun laws, gay marriage or anything else that is a hot topic, both sides engage in conversations grounded solely on personal beliefs. What gets lost in all of this muck is the truth. If a group of students from Texas StandOut has taught us anything, it is that sometimes, facts alone speak louder than the loudest speaker.

Lakhani is a finance sophomore from Sugar Land.

The Texas House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill Tuesday to establish a new UT System university in the Rio Grande Valley.

Lawmakers voted 149-0 to combine UT-Brownsville, UT-Pan American and the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen into one institution and allow that institution to access the Permanent University Fund, a $1.3 billion state endowment that funds the UT and Texas A&M systems. The Regional Academic Health Center, which currently offers residency programs, would gain a medical school that offers medical degrees under the proposal.

Tearing up after the vote, UT-Pan American President Robert Nelsen said the university would provide new educational opportunities to students in the Valley and allow them to attend what may become a tier-one research university.

“When you live in the Valley and you see the need and you see how education changes lives, you can’t help but be emotional,” Nelsen said. “Every child we educate takes one more family out of poverty.”

UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American are the only UT System institutions that do not currently have access to the Permanent University Fund.

Speaking on the House floor before the vote, Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, said the new “super university” would improve the Valley’s economy, allow students to stay in the region to attend college and help address the statewide doctor shortage.

“The passage of this bill isn’t just good for South Texas, it’s good for all of our state,” Oliveira said.

Oliveira said there are 33 medical residency positions available in the region but an additional 115 slots are expected to be available by 2016 when the medical school is projected to open its doors.

Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, said she wanted to emphasize that adding new slots in the Valley would not completely solve the statewide doctor shortage.

“My concern is that I don’t want anyone in this House chamber to think that because of this new medical school, we’re in any way going to solve the doctor or physician shortage that we have in this state,” Davis said.

Upon its establishment, the university would have about 28,000 students, research expenditures of more than $11 million and an endowment of $70.5 million, according to a report by the House Research Organization.

The institutions involved in the consolidation could save $6 million in administrative costs, according to the report.

The new university would automatically admit students who currently attend the institutions involved in the consolidation.

The UT System is currently committing $100 million over 10 years for the prospective Valley medical school and will seek $10 million in annual state funds for the consolidation.

The bill now moves to the Senate, which approved a similar bill last week by a vote of 30-1. Each house must approve the measure by a two-thirds vote for it to take effect.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, said legislation establishing the new university may be on Gov. Rick Perry’s desk within the next few weeks.

During his State of the State address in January, Perry said he supported allowing UT System schools in the Valley to access the Permanent University Fund.

Lucio said 70 to 75 percent of medical students will seek employment in South Texas if they complete their residencies there.

“Ultimately, that is our goal — for them to stay in the Valley,” Lucio said.

Published on March 20, 2013 as "Texas House votes for new UT school". 

Small amounts of marijuana possession could become comparable to a traffic violation if a bill filed in the Texas House of Representatives passes.

Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, has filed a bill that would make possession of one ounce or less of marijuana a Class C misdemeanor, comparable to a traffic ticket. Currently, any amount less than two ounces is a Class B misdemeanor, which carries a penalty of up to 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $2,000.

A similar bill filed by Dutton makes possession of one gram or less of certain controlled substances a Class A misdemeanor instead of a state jail felony. Drugs under this category include cocaine, ecstasy, LSD and heroin. Under the current law, any amount less than two grams is a state jail felony, punishable by six to 24 months in state jail and a fine of up to $10,000. Offenders with certain previous convictions would not be subject to either of these bills.

Multiple attempts to reach Dutton were unsuccessful.

Buckley Rue, religious studies junior and UT’s Students for a Sensible Drug Policy president, said the bills are a small but significant step in the right direction. He said it is an issue of fairness to those arrested for minor drug possession violations.

“Drug usage, particularly marijuana, transcends color and creed, leaving people of all varieties to contemplate the day they might be arrested for some petty possession, which affects no one but the person getting arrested,” Rue said. “How many innocent teens must be plagued with a drug record for the rest of their life for having perhaps a gram of a substance with a lower death rate than caffeine or aspirin?”

Sociology professor William Kelly said he agrees with Dutton’s bill.

“It does not make sense to jail folks for possession of marijuana,” Kelly said. “Decriminalization of possession of marijuana is rational and appropriate.”

Dutton filed two similar bills during the last legislative session, both of which failed to make it out of the criminal jurisprudence committee.

Printed on Friday, December 7, 2012 as: Bills could loosen marijuana laws

Students hoping to influence legislation during the upcoming legislative session may have an additional avenue to work through thanks to a new bipartisan caucus.

State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, announced Friday the formation of the Young Texans Legislative Caucus in the Texas House of Representatives. The caucus will track and promote legislation affecting the 58 percent of Texans below the age of 40. In the Texas Legislature, caucuses serve as bodies around which members can organize to address the needs of a specific party, group or demographic.

Johnson, 37, said the caucus will create an organization through which young people, including college students, can voice their concerns and ideas on policies being discussed in the Legislature.

“This new caucus will serve as a natural outlet for student organizations seeking to directly engage with the legislature,” Johnson said. “The 1.4 million Texans in our higher education system are overwhelmingly a part of our target age demographic and we will be reaching out to student groups across the state after we get the caucus organized.”

Preston Covington, director of UT Student Government’s state relations agency, said he welcomes the announcement of the new caucus especially as Student Government prepares to play an active role in advocating for student issues during the upcoming legislative session.

“This will serve as another avenue that we will use to reach out and inform representatives about the issues we face,” Covington said.

Student Government, the Senate of College Councils, the Graduate Student Assembly and 25 other student organizations plan to organize students to lobby the Legislature through the “Invest in Texas” campaign — a nonpartisan program designed to advocate for adequate higher education funding.

The YTLC will be open to any representative 40 years old or younger or any representative who represents a district in which the percentage of those younger than 40 surpasses the state percentage. A total of 94 out of the 150 representatives are eligible to join the caucus through one of the two requirements, according to Johnson’s chief of staff Juan Ayala.

The YTLC will join the ranks of caucuses such as the Mexican American Legislative Caucus and the Texas Legislative Black Caucus.

Johnson pointed to specific issues such as education, infrastructure and management of natural resources that he hopes the new caucus can address on behalf of young Texans. He said he was motivated to create the caucus after looking at the composition of the state and House of Representatives.

“Nearly 6 in 10 Texans are 40 years of age or younger, and that demographic definitely deserves to have a stronger voice in our legislative deliberations,” Johnson said. “When I looked at the makeup of the House, I realized we had a solid core of younger members that we could organize around.”

Printed on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012 as: New caucus created for young Texans

A pair of bills filed in the Texas House of Representatives seeks to strip undocumented students of eligibility for in-state tuition.

State Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, and state Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, have filed separate bills that would amend the qualifications for in-state tuition to exclude undocumented students. Since 2001, undocumented immigrants have qualified for in-state tuition if they received a high school diploma in Texas, lived in the state for at least three years upon high school graduation and signed an affidavit stating their intention to apply for permanent residence when eligible.

Larson’s bill would amend the current law to explicitly exclude “a person who is not authorized by federal law to be present in the United States” from state resident status.

Unlike Larson’s bill, Zedler’s does not explicitly exclude undocumented immigrants from in-state tuition, but strikes part of the current language that gives them the opportunity to qualify as state residents. Zedler did not immediately respond to phone requests for comments.

Larson said the issue at hand is one of fairness to students who are here legally.

“For the state to impose a mandate that you have to offer in-state tuition, I don’t think that’s fair to the folks going through the process legitimately from other countries and states that are trying to get into these universities and paying tuition rates three times higher than someone who is here illegally,” Larson said.

In 2012, tuition at UT for state residents was $9,792 compared to $33,060 for out-of-state students. According to PolitiFact Texas, 16,476 undocumented college students in Texas received in-state tuition in 2010 through the pathway outlined in the current law. Four percent of those students attended UT (612).

Denise Gilman, clinical law professor and co-director of the law school’s immigration clinic, said she disagrees with Larson’s assessment of the fairness of his proposed bill.

“To me the fairness question really is one of treating students who have grown up here their entire lives fairly,” Gilman said. “It seems fundamentally unfair to exclude promising students from the opportunity of a higher education at a state institution because of their immigration status rather than any concerns of their ties to the community or willingness to contribute back to this community.”

Larson said his objection is not to undocumented students attending college in Texas but to the financial advantage they receive by qualifying as state residents.

“There’s no prohibition for allowing folks to apply if they’re here undocumented, but I don’t think we need to give them the same rate as the kids that are here legally and have in-state residence requirements met,” Larson said.

Javier Huamani, mechanical engineering senior and historian for University Leadership Initiative, said most undocumented students rely on in-state tuition eligibility to attend college. ULI is a student group that advocates policies and programs that would benefit the undocumented community.

“If in-state tuition were repealed, the hopes and dreams of many of these students would be crushed and those who try to pay would be facing the danger of debt,” Huamani said.

In the 2011 legislative session, several similar bills were filed, but none made it out of the committee process.

Printed on Thursday, November 29, 2012 as: In-state tuition challenged for undocumented Texas students

Editor’s note: We will feature higher education bills already filed for Texas’ 83rd legislative session, which begins Jan. 8, every day until the end of the semester.

Two bills filed in the Texas House of Representatives will encourage more student volunteers if they make it through the upcoming legislative session.

Representative Eddie Lucio III and representative Trey Martinez Fischer each filed bills earlier in November that would encourage Texas high school and college students to put in more volunteer hours. Fischer’s bill would add 20 hours of volunteer work to college graduation requirements and Lucio’s bill would turn high school students’ volunteer hours into tuition credit.

“Serve Your Way to College”

Lucio’s legislative director Houston Tower said Lucio’s bill would create a pilot program called “Serve Your Way to College,” in which students would earn tuition funds in exchange for volunteer hours. Tower said under the program, students would earn at least the equivalent of minimum federal wages in tuition credits.

“We looked at the rates of student debt that students are incurring, and the numbers are skyrocketing,” Tower said. “This is a way to make college more affordable to students while they give back to the community. The way we looked at it, it was a win-win.”

Tower said high school students would have to volunteer at least 50 hours before they could earn tuition funds and they could earn no more than 250 hours per year. According to the bill, the Higher Education Coordinating Board will choose which companies and organizations can participate in the “Serve Your Way to College” pilot program. Political organizations are not allowed to participate, Tower said. He also said Texas would not consider any for-credit volunteer work or volunteer work that replaced paid employees.

While it is early in the legislative process, Tower said Lucio is confident the bill will receive support at the Capitol.

“This is something we feel needs to be addressed, and that is why we filed it as early as we did,” Tower said.

“Volunteer graduation requirement”

Fischer, who also practices law, did not return a request for comment. According to the text of his bill, which would require public university students to serve 20 hours of volunteer work before graduating, every institution would assign an existing office to the duty of assisting students in satisfying this new graduation requirement.

The bill allows individual institutions to select which public service organizations students can volunteer for. It also allows students to propose specific organizations.

If Fischer’s bill passes, it would not affect any college students who enroll in a Texas institution before Sept. 1, 2014.

Holland Finely, coordinator of Student Government’s philanthropic agency Orange Outreach, said the opportunity to expose students to volunteering is valuable, but requiring students to do it gives her some reservation.

“Volunteering gives a dimension to education that can’t be found anywhere else,” Finely said. “But at the same time, there is something about service that is very pure in that you are giving yourself to it rather than being required to do it.”

However, Finley said the bills would be useful in getting students who would normally not volunteer to do so.

Printed on Tuesday, November 27, 2012 as: Legislation to encourage community volunteering


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.

Undocumented students may once again battle for the right to an affordable higher education if three Texas Legislative hopefuls capture seats at the Capitol in November.

Kelly Hancock (R-Fort Worth), Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) and Ken Paxton (R-McKinney), three state representatives vying for re-election to seats in the Texas Legislature, told The Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith Thursday they oppose offering undocumented students in-state tuition rates. UT’s approximately 600 undocumented students currently pay in-state tuition through Texas’ DREAM Act, signed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry in 2001.

Hancock, who currently serves in the Texas House of Representatives, said he would vote against in-state tuition for undocumented students. In order to qualify for in-state tuition rates in Texas, students must have lived in Texas for at least three years, graduated from a Texas high school, signed an affidavit promising to apply for citizenship and be pursing a degree. Hancock also said a parent’s illegal acts impacts their children.

“It’s a supply and demand issue,” Hancock said in the interview. “My difficulty is condoning illegal activity and putting a stamp of approval on it.”

Mechanical engineering senior Javier Huamani is undocumented and part of UT’s University Leadership Initiative, a student-run organization that promotes education for undocumented students on the UT campus. ULI formed in 2005 and has partnered with local, state and national organizations in support of the federal DREAM Act.

The act, which stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, would grant citizenship to undocumented students if they display good moral character, are working toward a college degree or are serving in the U.S. military.

“The fact of the matter is children like me that were brought here not by choice were victims of circumstance,” Huamani said. “I would never blame my parents. They believed I should have a better life and a better future.”

Citizenship aside, Huamani says he considers Texas his home.

“If you did not ask me if I was undocumented, you would never know,” Huamani said. “I go to class, I study hard, I am messy in my room, I am an engineer, I like to play music. Essentially, I am an individual.”

Paxton, who was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 2002, said the limited funding Texas has to allocate to education should go to citizens first.

“I would love it if we could pay for college education for anyone in the world that wanted to come to Texas, whether they are from Mexico or Europe or Japan,” Paxton said in the interview. “It is not that I do not care about those children, it is because we only have so many dollars.”

Teri Albrecht, the director of International Student and Scholar Services at UT, said any student should be able to gain the skills they need for their chosen profession. She said undocumented families who have established residency in Texas pay taxes and live here like any other citizen, and providing them with adequate education helps the state’s economy.

“My experience with undocumented students is that they are in these professions that are giving back to society,” Albrecht said. “When we oppress people to the point that they can not have skilled jobs, or even hold jobs, we are creating a level of people that are not allowed to further themselves.”

Taylor, a Texas Representative since 2003, said undocumented students’ tuition rates are a small component of a bigger issue.

“We have a broken immigration system in this country,” Taylor said in the interview. “We need a system where people can work, but we have to know who they are.”

Hancock, Taylor and Paxton did not return requests for comment. The 2013 Legislative session begins Jan. 8, 2013.