Jason Isaac

82nd Legislature

House members gathered under the Capitol dome for more than 15 hours Friday and again Sunday to hash out details of the 2012-13 biennium budget, which passed in a 98-49 vote mostly along party lines.

Lawmakers piled on more than 200 amendments to House Bill 1 — several of which attempted to ease the hit to universities and financial aid.

The Senate will vote on their budget version in the coming weeks. Both budgets will then go into a joint committee where members from both chambers will work on one final version.

Outside the Capitol, public interest groups including Texas Impact protesters held a daylong vigil Friday to mourn the “death of state services.”

“Teachers across the state, who equipped themselves to serve the children of the state of Texas are being forced out of the position they love and put on the unemployment line,” said Louis Malfaro, secretary-treasurer of the Texas American Federation of Teachers. “So, today we mourn the death of Texas education.”

Legislators proposed about 73 amendments dealing with education, at least 11 of which attempt to increase financial aid funding.

Lawmakers did not pass any amendments to support TEXAS Grant funding. The original House budget proposes cutting TEXAS grants in half — or by nearly 35,900 from 2011 to 2012 — which would eliminate their availability for incoming students. Several lawmakers spoke passionately about restoring those funds.

Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, proposed an amendment — which failed — that would have transferred $24 million from the Texas Workforce Commission’s Skills Development Fund into TEXAS Grants and Texas Equalization Grants.

“The TEXAS Grants program has been extremely, extremely slashed in this budget,” Isaac said. “The cuts to the grants are too much, and this is one small way we can help underprivileged families, hardened by economic burdens we are facing in today’s economy. We need kids going to these schools, so we can improve our economies.”

Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, echoed Isaac’s sentiments by asking members to restore funding to financial aid to help students afford college. His amendments, which were shot down, proposed prioritizing TEXAS Grants if the Legislature taps into the Rainy Day Fund, a $9.4 billion emergency fund lawmakers can use during financial difficulties.

“TEXAS Grants is a program that pays dividends,” Villarreal said. “This is a program we created some time ago. We told our high school students that if you take rigorous courses and study hard, graduate high school and pursue college, we will be there for you to help afford college.”

According to one amendment that did pass, authored by Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, if universities, such as UT and Texas A&M, can fund Gender and Sexuality Centers that teach about “alternative sexual practices,” they should equally fund “traditional values.”

Christian said his amendment would not infringe on a university’s right to provide alternative sexual practice education, it just expands on what they are required to offer.

“Currently, UT and other schools have a gender and sexuality center for alternative sexual practices. I’m not treading on their right to do that,” he said.

---

A Bill is Born:

All bills filed during this legislative session will face seven stages before they become law. Each session, lawmakers must pass a budget for the upcoming biennium.

1. Bill filed in House
2. In Appropriations (Committee until March 23)
3. House floor voted (on the bill April 3)
4. Out of Senate Committee
5. Voted on by Senate
6. Sent to Governor
7. Bill Becomes Law


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
 

On the Lege

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a six-part series examining bills that could impact the lives of students. If the Legislature passes either of two bills this session, the University will lose its ability to raise tuition in the face of rising costs and a shrinking budget. Two bills from the Texas House of Representatives, authored by Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, and James White, R-Hillister, would freeze tuition at whatever rate universities charge for the 2010-11 school year. Both of the bills will freeze tuition, but Isaac’s would freeze it for two years longer than White’s bill. UT’s current average rate of tuition for the 2010-11 school year is $4,778.25 for Texas residents taking 12 or more hours. These bills will prevent universities from taking in more money from students to make up for money lost from budget cuts, said Tim Head, White’s chief of staff. When legislators impose budget limitations on public institutions that are lower than what the institution may need, the institution often charges higher tuition, Head said. “The Legislature intends for the institution to limit its growth, but instead they just charge their students more money,” he said. White’s bill, if passed, would stop tuition hikes based on the 2010-2011 tuition rates for the next two academic years and would apply to all students enrolled in public universities, he said. “The idea is to keep them from passing higher tuition prices to students,” he said. “In Texas schools, tuition has skyrocketed over the last several years.” Isaac’s bill would freeze rates for the next four academic years until 2014-2015. The bill is intended to help ensure students will be able to pay for and stay in school in a time when grants are often being cut in the state’s estimated $27 billion budget deficit, Isaac said. “As the cost of higher education continues to rise, it is becoming more and more difficult for students to afford to attend college,” he said. “I was lucky enough to be able to finance my college education through a combination of working hard and receiving various forms of financial aid. Had I not received that help, it would have been much more difficult for me to graduate.” A well-educated workforce is crucial to the future success of the state, and the bill will help more people have the financial ability to attend college, Isaac said. “I know that it will place a lot of pressure on universities to maintain their quality of education without depending on money from increased tuition, but it’s the same pressure that families and businesses across Texas are currently feeling,” he said. A bill like Isaac’s could cost the University $230 million in potential revenue, assuming UT would have raised tuition 3.95 percent every year the bill applies to, said Mary Knight, associate vice president of UT’s budget office. The bill would compound the budget reductions which are already estimated to be between $80 million and $100 million for the 2012-2013 biennium, she said. “Although the University is making plans for needed budget reductions and affordability continues to be a top priority, it is important to be able to have some flexibility with tuition and other potential revenue sources,” she said. The College Republicans opted not to endorse White’s bill because of the difficult position it would put the University in, group vice president Justin May said. Since the bill would prevent universities from raising tuition to take in more money, it would also require them to cut more academic programs and would negatively affect long-term projects such as construction, he said. “The frustrating thing is that if the state is going to cap tuition, they should either account for inflation in their plan or they should be able to provide funding for higher education,” he said. If the state government can’t make up for the loss created by budget cuts, then students lose some of the quality of the education at public institutions of higher education, he said. White’s bill wouldn’t provide that kind of supplementation, he said. “Constitutionally, our state does have a commitment to higher education,” May said. “If we’re going to regulate universities, we can’t just do it halfway. We need to make sure that Texas students get the best education so that they can be competitive, not just in the state but nationally and internationally.” Undeclared freshman Marisol Canales said she thinks the school has the money to get by without raising tuition or cutting courses because of the high amount of construction on campus. 6 “They’re giving us, the students, these choices between raising tuition or cutting courses, which they’re not even asking us about,” she said. “[The administration] is adding more buildings instead of focusing on what really matters, which is the education that we’re here for.”

Republicans widened their majority in the Texas House of Representatives, taking 22 seats from Democrats Tuesday night.

The 99 Republicans and 51 Democrats in the new state house must balance the budget, bearing the burden of a deficit that could be as high as $25 million. Texas Republican Party spokesman Chris Elam said the “seismic” shift is even more dramatic than what the U.S. saw in the national house.

“It’s a shift that is historic not just in Texas but in national history,” Elam said. “It’s hard to over appreciate the gravitas of this situation. With a 100-50 in the house, conservative principles are the name of the game now.”

Republicans and Democrats disagreed on the reasons for the massive gains. Republicans touted grassroots campaigning and strong conservative Texas values, while Democrats suggested that Republicans simply rode the wave of anti-Washington sentiment that has swept the country in the past few months.

“From the top to the bottom of the ballot, Texas Republicans have run against Obama,” said Texas Democratic Party spokeswoman Kirsten Gray. “They have talked about Obama and Pelosi. We don’t know a thing about their priorities in Texas or their plans for the $25 billion deficit.”

Central Texas saw several Republicans take seats from Democrats, including Valinda Bolton’s loss to Paul Workman in District 47, Jason Isaac’s victory over Patrick Rose in District 45 and Larry Gonzales’ 20-point win over freshman incumbent Diana Maldonado in District 52. Democrat Donna Howard kept her seat in District 48 by only 15 votes.

“In the Texas house, Republicans had a better night than many were predicting,” said UT public affairs lecturer Sherri Greenberg. “There were a lot of races in play in the Texas house, up to 25 or so. Some of these seats in Travis County and Central Texas were Republican seats that Democrats held onto, and those Democrats like Patrick Rose had real opponents in a big Republican year.”

Rose, a seven-year incumbent, said he is proud of his work in the house during his terms, and he hopes Isaac continues to prioritize District 45. Isaac said his top priorities include balancing the budget to cut spending without raising taxes, improving benefits for public school teachers and hot legislative issues such as promoting concealed carry on college campuses.

“It’s about getting back to fiscal responsibility, working with budget problems we have and cutting spending,” Isaac said. “I want us to be the model. I want businesses to aspire to be as efficient as the Texas state government.”

Legislative topics such as concealed carry and immigration are likely to see much more time on the house floor with such a strong conservative majority, Greenberg said. However, she, like Republican and Democratic candidates and representatives, said tackling the state’s budget deficit must be a top priority.

“It’s going to be a tough budget year, there has never been any doubt about that,” Greenberg said. “But there is certainly going to be much more pressure on not raising taxes because that’s the platform people were running on. That’s a tough situation when you’re looking at more than $21 billion in the hole.”

Texas Republicans recognize the responsibility they have to the Texans who elected them and will act on that mandate to return Texas to conservative principles, Elam said.

“This is like being given the keys to the car, and it’s time to put up or shut up in terms of what we’re going to stand for in policy and the future of our state,” Elam said. “Because in the future of our nation, Texas is going to lead the way.”