John Brown

Rep. John Zerwas, chair of the House committee on higher education, speaks to members of Invest in Texas at the Capitol on Thursday.
Photo Credit: Andy Nguyen | Daily Texan Staff

Student leaders headed to the Capitol on Thursday as part of the annual Invest in Texas campaign, speaking with legislators and their staff about campus carry regulations, in-state tuition for undocumented students and a host of other higher education-related issues.

As part of this year’s Invest in Texas campaign, a nonpartisan lobbying effort between the Graduate Student Assembly, Senate of College Councils and Student Government, leaders from the organizations presented six platform points on behalf of the student body.

“We ran a well-oiled machine,” said John Brown, government junior and Invest in Texas co-director. “Our messages — they were very well-received. We got a lot of good feedback on our platform.”

One of the group’s platform points supported a capital investment for the renovation of Welch Hall. Welch houses the UT chemistry and biochemistry departments, and the building is 85 years old. The University needs around $125 million to renovate the building and improve laboratory safety, according to administrators from the College of Natural Sciences.

Geetika Jerath, international relations and global studies senior and Senate of College Councils president, said she believes Welch, which approximately 10,000 students use each day, is unsafe for laboratory use.  

“Students and faculty members fear for their safety,” Jerath said. “This is not a mindset that Longhorns … should have. We should be focused on conducting groundbreaking research in state-of-the-art facilities.”

The platform also called for legislators to continue support of the Texas DREAM Act, which grants in-state tuition for undocumented students with Texas residency. Rep. John Zerwas (R-Richmond), chair of the House committee on higher education, spoke to students before they met with legislators, and he said he thinks the DREAM Act will pass in the House again. 

“The opportunity for [undocumented students] to go on in higher education is critically important to their success and the success of the state,” Zerwas said.

The students who lobbied also spoke in opposition to tuition regulation at the state level, asking that state universities be allowed to determine their own tuition.

“If tuition is re-regulated, the very people who pay the tuition will lose their voice in this critical issue,” Jerath said.

Students also lobbied in favor of a bill that would establish tax-free periods for textbook sales in August and January, and for continued state funding and grant-matching to support research at Tier One institutions, including UT. 

The group lobbied in support of allowing college campuses to set their own policies on campus carry, a bill that, if passed, would allow students to carry concealed handguns into campus buildings. 

Sharla Chamberlain, public affairs graduate student and GSA’s legislative affairs director, said graduate student voices often go unheard.

“There are 12,000 graduate students living, working, researching at the University of Texas today,” Chamberlain said. “Graduate students provide an invaluable service to UT. … We’re all taking time from our busy lives to invest in our education.”

The Senate of College Councils passed legislation Thursday in support of this year’s Invest in Texas platform, effectively finalizing the list of policy goals and setting the stage for the nonpartisan lobbying day next month.

Invest in Texas is a student-led, nonpartisan campaign sponsored by more than 20 student organizations, and student leaders will head to the Capitol to lobby on behalf of the student body on April 9.

Both Student Government and the Graduate Student Assembly approved the platform earlier in March.

Invest in Texas co-director John Brown, who authored the platform with co-director Taylor Guerrero, Senate president Geetika Jerath and SG president Kori Rady, said new leaders in the Texas legislature mean new lobbying challenges, too.

“It’s been a different year,” Brown said. “We’ve got our ammo, and we’re ready to go to war for higher ed.”

The platform is divided into six parts. Students will lobby for capital investment funding for the renovation of Welch Hall, for the continuation of in-state tuition for undocumented students of Texas residency and for provisions that allow for institutions to determine their own policies and guidelines on campus carry, a law which would allow people to carry concealed handguns on campus with a proper license.

“Campus carry has been a big one for me,” Rady said. “A lot of students have voiced their opinions on it, and it’s one that seems to be a hot topic in regards to the student body.”

All of the platform points focus on items that are currently being debated in the Texas Legislature. Students will also lobby in support of continued funding and matching of grants to help UT maintain its Tier One status as a research institution. Further platform points include opposition to tuition regulation and support for a tax holiday for college textbooks.  

“We definitely want [the platform] to be as inclusive as possible,” Jerath said. “We don’t want to make a certain platform that not all students will agree with.” 

Brown said University officials often push for certain policies without the support of students, making Invest in Texas even more important.

“Sometimes people tend to forget students,” Brown said. “Some of us do have educated opinions [and] read up on the issues. What we hope to do is remind the legislature … that UT students are down the road, that we can be noisy. We can help.”

Many students involved in the legislative student organizations will march to the Capitol, along with any other students who want to join. Longhorn Advocates, a group of 31 UT students, will also attend and be paired with 31 separate senators. Rep. John Zerwas (R-Richmond), the chair of higher education, will speak to students who attend.

The Invest in Texas team has been planning the day since last summer and will continue to advocate following the campaign. 

“We’ve been advocating all throughout, and we’ll be advocating after,” Rady said. “Our Invest in Texas day doesn’t mean the work is done.” 

Undeclared sophomore Wes Draper (right) shakes hands with government sophomore John Brown after winning the runoff election to become the University-wide representative Thursday afternoon. Draper won the election with 54.49 percent of the vote. 

Photo Credit: Jonathan Garza | Daily Texan Staff

Wes Draper took the eighth position for University-wide representative in a runoff election Thursday, after an additional week of campaigning since last week’s campus-wide elections.

Draper, an undeclared sophomore, and government sophomore John Brown both received 2,080 votes last week. Draper won the runoff election with 54.49 percent of the vote. According to Election Supervisory Board chairman Ryan Lutz, 2,090 students voted Wednesday and Thursday. This is about four times greater than the 507 students who voted in the Graduate Student Assembly election.

“We didn’t expect this high of a voter turnout, but we’re absolutely pleased it was that high,” Lutz said. “That means a lot of students cared about that position.”

Lutz said he was surprised there was a runoff election for a representative position.

“If there are more than two executive alliances, it will almost always go into a runoff, but for a representative position, something like that has not happened for as long as I can remember,” Lutz said.

As an incoming University-wide representative, Draper said he plans to make transferring to colleges more accessible for current students at the University. As a student in the School of Undergraduate Studies, he said he has found it difficult to transfer into another college.

“Just because you’re at UT doesn’t mean as much as it used to, which is kind of silly in itself to keep enrolling large masses and just throw them into the feeder program — UGS,” Draper said.

Draper said he hopes to create a program that would make it easier for students to enroll in their first choice college after they’ve enrolled at the University.

“If I had one goal next year, it would be to really make those programs more accessible to students who are at UT,” Draper said. 

Draper, a member of the Kappa Sigma fraternity and Cru, a ministry for college students, said he also hopes to bring the student body together outside of student organizations.

“Because of the size of the University, it forces people into groups to find some sort of acceptance and unity,” Draper said.

Draper cited Student Government’s push for a campus-wide homecoming and tailgating in a specific location before athletic events as effective ways to increase student involvement. 

Brown, who is currently a representative for the College of Liberal Arts, said he was glad it was a close race and plans to do what he can to stay active in SG.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Brown said. “I can’t complain. I’d rather it be interesting than boring.”

Sara LeStrange, communications manager for the Office of the Dean of Students, said the department worked to make sure there were no problems with the voting website for the runoff election. During last week’s elections, the website crashed 15 minutes before polls closed, resulting in voting being extended for an hour and 45 minutes. 

“Technical difficulties happen,” LeStrange said. “There was a glitch. It was repaired and it was really an unfortunate issue of timing.”

 

Photo Credit: Marshall Nolen | Daily Texan Staff

At the Student Government Assembly meeting Tuesday, a future resolution was announced that calls for the elimination of government stipends given to all executive branch members. The resolution will be filed at the next assembly meeting.   

The SG budget outlines a tuition allotment for the president and vice president of $5,200 each, as well as a government stipend of $6,840 each. It also details a $3,420 stipend for each of the other five executive branch members. The resolution would only affect the stipends.

According to Andrew Houston, architecture and urban studies senior and chair of the rules and regulation committee, the funds for the stipend take up about 36 percent of SG’s entire budget.

John Brown, government sophomore and one author of the resolution, said he thinks the stipends are unnecessary.

“I’m not out to get anybody, I’m just trying to equalize the playing field,” Brown said. “It’s unnecessary to have those stipends. I know [the executive branch] is open to doing something like this.”

Houston said similar resolutions in the past were unsuccessful, but this resolution has a good chance of succeeding because of SG’s emphasis on its role as an educational opportunity for all students.

“There are also people within the assembly, almost every year, who intend on trying to run or becoming part of the executive branch in the future, so they kill [the resolution] so that they don’t ruin the opportunity for themselves,” Houston said.

Brown said the resolution currently has no sponsors, but he hopes to see more active involvement from the members of the assembly.