Eddie Lucio III

Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

In a continued effort to prioritize higher education in this year’s legislative session, a group of six legislators are working to provide a tax exemption on certain textbooks. 

Rep. Mary González (D-El Paso), Rep. Ana Hernandez (D-Houston), Rep. Eddie Lucio III (D-Brownsville), Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown), Rep. Terry Canales (D-Edinburg) and Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo), individually filed bills that would offer part-time or full-time students at accredited public or private universities a tax exemption on textbooks each semester. 

If passed, each of the bills would set a time period during which students could purchase textbooks tax-free. 

“As we discuss curving tuition cost and financial aid opportunities, it was important for us to look at the spiking cost in textbook costs that students have to purchase each year,” Hernandez said.  

Canales, Hernandez and Schwertner’s bills set aside a week-long exemption period at the start of each semester. Zaffirini’s bill set aside 10 days, Lucio’s set aside one month and González’s set no time limit on the tax exemption.

Michael Kiely, course materials director at University Co-op, said the first week of the semester is typically the busiest for textbook sales and said the store would support sales tax exemptions.

“I’m not entirely sure what the impact of a sales tax exemption would have on textbook sales, but I can’t help but think it would be a positive thing for the consumer,” Kiely said in an email to The Daily Texan. “This is an initiative that would help lower the cost of course materials for students at UT, and the Co-op would be in favor of that.”

Canales said he hopes the bill will help more students afford day-to-day expenses while attending college. 

“Education is the greatest equalizer, so, essentially, what these bills do is they make education more affordable,” Canales said.

Schwertner said passing a textbook tax exemption bill is “the least we can do” to aid students who are struggling financially.

“The fact is, the cost of higher education is rising faster than Texas families can … keep up,” Schwertner said. “The price of tuition, fees and textbooks have all risen dramatically over the last decade, and, collectively, they are turning the dream of a college education into a nightmare for more and more Texas students.”

Since 1999, similar bills have been filed in the State House of Representatives and Senate but failed to pass, with the last bill filed in the 83rd legislative session. Zaffirini said the bill failed because of concerns over revenue loss.

Zaffirini said her most recent bill will only apply to students eligible for financial aid — a factor she thinks will lessen the bill’s financial impact on the state and increase its chances of passing. 

“In the past, we have heard opposition from certain municipalities that rely on sales tax revenue from textbook sales,” Zaffirini said. “We are hopeful that they will be more amenable to this session’s revised legislation.”

Hernandez said she thinks lowering the cost of higher education is an opportunity for Republican and Democrat lawmakers to work together.

“There are so many issues we can work on in a bipartisan fashion,” Hernandez said. “I think this is one of them. We are interested in helping our college students not graduate with so much debt and making education more accessible to everyone.”

A law school may join the proposed consolidated UT System institution in the Rio Grande Valley despite claims by the state’s higher education agency that Texas does not immediately need another law school.

Two bills filed in the Texas House of Representatives would grant university systems the authority to establish a law school in Cameron or Hidalgo counties, two border counties near the Gulf of Mexico.

Barry McBee, UT System vice chancellor for governmental relations, said the System is prioritizing the establishment of the consolidated university over the establishment of a law school, which could become part of the new institution at a later date.

“Our initial goal is the successful creation of the new university,” McBee said. “If legislation passes and other systems wish to establish a law school, we would not stand in the way of that and would look forward to partnering with them in some fashion.”

The Texas Legislature is considering bills filed in both houses that would combine the University of Texas at Brownsville, the University of Texas-Pan American and the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen into one institution. The bill would give that institution access to the Permanent University Fund, a $1.3 billion state endowment that allocates money to institutions in the UT and Texas A&M systems. The Regional Academic Health Center would become a medical school under the proposal.

In a 2010 report, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board recommended against creating a new law school, citing data that projected the state does not face a shortage of lawyers. However, the report said a law school in the Rio Grande Valley would increase opportunities for underrepresented groups, primarily Hispanics, who comprise 7 percent of the State Bar of Texas’ membership.

Similar legislation was introduced during the past three legislative sessions, but did not gain approval.

State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Harlingen and UT alumnus, filed a bill that would grant the UT System Board of Regents the authority to establish and operate a law school. He said the bill would be amended to allow other university systems to establish a law school in the Valley. 

The proposed law school would cost the state more than $80 million during a five year period for construction costs, hiring faculty and operations. The UT System is currently committing $100 million over 10 years for a prospective Valley medical school and will seek $10 million in annual state funds for the consolidation. Lucio said the potential cost should not bar legislators from addressing legal education in the Valley.

“I’m not naive to the cost restraints of establishing a new school,” Lucio said. “I’m not naive to the fact that we’re going to probably spend a substantial amount of money establishing this umbrella university in South Texas, but we can’t stop having the conversation.” 

Lucio said the region has one of the lowest lawyer-to-resident ratios in Texas.

Cameron County has one lawyer for every 768 residents, and Hidalgo County has one lawyer for every 832 residents, according to a study of attorney population density for 2011-2012 gathered by the State Bar of Texas. 

In contrast, Travis County has one lawyer for every 115 residents, Bexar County has one lawyer for every 320 residents and Harris County has one lawyer for every 193 residents.

State Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez, D-Weslaco, filed a separate bill to establish a law school in the Valley and said residents may not have the financial means to move elsewhere to attend law school even if they are qualified to attend.

“If we’re pushing a medical school and understand that we don’t have a medical school close by, why not have a law school?” Martinez said. “We should be afforded the same opportunity as the rest of the state.”

Published on March 4, 2013 as "South Texas law school proposed". 

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

A series of bills for the upcoming legislative session would facilitate the establishment of new schools and educational programs, including a proposed UT law school in the Rio Grande Valley.

State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-San Benito, filed a bill that would grant the UT System Board of Regents the authority to establish and operate a law school in Cameron or Hidalgo counties, two border counties near the Gulf of Mexico.

Lucio’s legislative director Houston Tower said the region’s distance from law schools in Austin, San Antonio and Houston discourages residents from attending those schools.

“Most [residents who pursue a legal career] have to uproot themselves, which at their income level is not feasible,” Tower said.

He said the proposed school would combat a perceived shortage of lawyers in the region compared to other areas of the state.

Cameron County has one lawyer for every 768 residents and a population of 414,123, according to a study of attorney population density for 2011-2012 gathered by the State Bar of Texas. With a population of 797,810, Hidalgo County has one lawyer for every 832 residents.

In contrast, Travis County has one lawyer for every 115 residents and a population of more than 1 million, Bexar County has one lawyer for every 320 residents and a population of close to 2 million and Harris County has one lawyer for every 193 residents with a population of more than 4 million.

Lucio has introduced the bill during the past three legislative sessions, but it did not gain approval from the House Higher Education Committee.

Tower said the committee was concerned about the proposed school’s budgetary impact. He said the school would cost the state more than $80 million over a five-year period for construction costs, hiring faculty and operations.

“That tends to be the barrier that we face [in passing the bill],” Tower said.

The bill would direct the board to ask the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to conduct a feasibility study to determine what the System must do to seek accreditation for the law school before its establishment.

Another bill introduced by state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, would allow the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center at El Paso to become an independent institution with the Texas Tech System rather than a branch of the Health Sciences Center based in Lubbock.

If the bill passes, the center would hire its own president and administration, have the authority to issue degrees and allow the Texas Tech Board of Regents to establish teaching hospitals affiliated with the campus.

State Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, filed a bill that would allow the University of Houston’s College of Optometry to operate a summer optometry program.

Printed on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012 as: Bills endorse new Texas schools

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