Rodney Ellis

Photo Credit: Stephanie Tacy | Daily Texan Staff

The Senate Committee on Higher Education heard bills Wednesday to limit tuition increases in higher ed.

In 2003, legislators deregulated tuition, granting universities control of tuition rates. Since the tuition deregulation, in-state tuition at UT has increased from $2,721 to $4,905 per semester, but for the past four years, tuition rates have been relatively constant.

“We now allow boards of regents to raise tuition on their own, and [they are] shifting funds away from states and to families,“ Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) said. 

The committee heard two bills — one by Ellis and another by Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown). While both bills have slightly different implementation measures, their goals are essentially the same: to regulate tuition at the state level again.

Unlike Ellis’ bill, Schwertner’s addresses capping student fees as well as tuition. His bill also only applies to public four-year institutions.

Ellis, author of SB 255, said he thinks the deregulation of tuition has placed a financial burden on Texas students and their families.

“That makes it hard for students to attend the schools that were built to serve them,” Ellis said. “It pushes families to a point where they incur debt.”

The availability of loans to finance student tuition limits universities’ interests in decreasing tuition, according to Schwertner, author of SB 233.

“Because of readily available access to student loans, universities never truly have an incentive to control costs or lower tuition,” Schwertner said. “Universities know that the financing will always be there.”

Plan II and biochemistry senior Andrew Gulde testified at the hearing in support of Ellis’ bill. He said the only way for students to have a say in UT’s tuition decisions is through the nonvoting student regent.

“I support SB 255 because it’s the only bill that allows families like mine and me to hold legislators accountable for tuition decisions,” Gulde said. “I believe the Legislature — not an elected board — is the proper place for these decisions to be made.”

University library assistant Kathryn Kenefick testified on both bills. Kenefick said she supports the strong push in the Texas Legislature for tuition.

“I hear tales from students as they are getting ready to complete school and looking for jobs and have the terrible burden of student debt that has come from the institutional costs,” Kenefick said.

When Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) asked Schwertner if he thought the bill would pass through the full Senate, Schwertner chuckled and said, “There’s always hope, Senator.“

Concealed carry on campus may have hit another dead end after Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, pulled down her higher education bill Tuesday.

Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, had attempted to add his controversial guns on campus legislation as an amendment to Zaffirini’s bill, which would have reduced reporting requirements for universities and in turn lowered tuition rates.

The move to propose the amendment came after Wentworth lost key Democrat supporters when he tried to pass his initial bill, which would have allowed concealed handgun license holders to carry guns on college campuses.

Senators, including Zaffirini, were surprised when Wentworth proposed the legislation as an amendment last Thursday. Senators approved the amendment 21-10 Tuesday.

Zaffirini withdrew her bill after she employed several parliamentary tactics to remove the amendment. She argued the amendment was not germane to her bill and asked for an immediate vote on the bill under the “five-second rule” because she said Wentworth had not asked senators to consider an amendment within certain time restraints.

Both tries failed but opened up a two-hour debate on the concealed carry amendment during which senators proposed several additional amendments to Wentworth’s amendment.

During debate, Wentworth denied Zaffarini’s attempt to add an amendment to allow a student referendum to vote on the issue and approve the issue on a campus by campus basis.

“Students are able to vote on other issues, they should certainly be able to vote on the danger posed by handguns on campuses,” Zaffirini said. “The students should have a voice.”

Wentworth denied all proposals to allow students, faculty or regent boards to hold a campus vote to make a final decision.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said allowing concealed carry on campus would cause a direct increase for university insurance premiums.

“This is just ridiculous in my judgment,” Ellis said. “I hope you would go beyond the politics, the cost of implementing this is going to be astronomical with insurance cost.”

Wentworth accepted an amendment by Ellis to reimburse institutions that see an increased premium as a direct result of the legislation. Ellis said universities could see a 15-25 percent liability increase, but Wentworth said it would not cause additional risk.

The amendment addressed Brownsville Democrat Sen. Eddie Lucio’s desire to exempt primary and secondary schools located on university campuses. Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, praised Wentworth for maintaining a provision to allow universities to regulate storage rules in
campus dorms.

The future of concealed carry on campus remains unknown. Wentworth said he is grateful senators approved his amendment even though the bill has been left pending.

“The overwhelming majority of Texas Senators are in favor of allowing concealed carry on campus,” he said.

Vote expected on Monday

Texas Senators were debating the concealed-carry bill Thursday when Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, temporarily pulled the bill down until Monday.

The bill would allow concealed-handgun license holders to carry guns on Texas college campuses. The decision came after senators asked Wentworth for additional time to look over new amendments and propose the bill to constituents.

“This is a matter of personal protection,” Wentworth said. “The idea that it will result in increased violence is unfounded.”

Wentworth recently accepted an amendment by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, to exempt primary and secondary school campuses located within universities from the bill.

Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, who was originally one of 21 members in favor, said he would not be able to support the bill unless he had the weekend to propose it to constituents, some of whom expressed concern over Nichols’ amendment.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, opposed the bill and said there are too many factors, such as alcohol and the danger of suicides, that can create a “toxic mix” if guns are allowed on campus.

“Twenty-three states have tabled bills exactly like this,” Ellis said.

Ellis pointed out lawmakers in conservative Southern states such as Mississippi and Alabama opposed similar legislation.

“Senate Bill 354 is a bad solution to a serious problem. Again, it makes us feel like we’ve gotten tough — deputizing students — but the fact is that the universities don’t want it, and law enforcement doesn’t want it because they know it will not make our campuses safer,” he said. “It might make a great campaign mailer, but it will absolutely not make students safer.”

But Wentworth said he is confident the bill will pass next week.

To honor a former UT professor, congresswoman and state senator, the Texas Legislature will pass a resolution today to commemorate the birthday of Barbara Jordan.

Monday marked the 75th birthday of Jordan, former Texas senator and professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs. Jordan was the first African-American woman to join the state senate and was later elected to the United States Congress, before teaching in the School of Public Affairs. She died in 1996.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, will present a House resolution to the Senate that will be passed today in honor of Jordan’s birthday, while Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, will present it to the House, said Laura Langham, a staff attorney and researcher with the Texas Senate. Lawmakers have invited 100 fifth graders from Barbara Jordan Elementary School to watch the resolution pass in the House and the Senate, Langham said.

“Besides the fact that she was an outstanding woman, it seems appropriate to honor her birthday because of all that she accomplished in the Senate,” she said. “It’s important to embody her values as a senator and to
celebrate her.”

The resolution is part of a weeklong symposium co-sponsored by the Legislature and LBJ School to celebrate the life of Barbara Jordan.

Ellis spoke to a crowd of 130 in the LBJ School about Jordan’s legacy. It’s especially important to celebrate her legacy and impact on UT and the School of Public Affairs so that future students can accomplish what she could not, Ellis said.

“Of all of the accolades on her resume to have put on her headstone in the state cemetery, the one that stands out in the boldest print is teacher,“ he said. “Maybe that’s because at the end of the day, the most significant gift that any of us can give to future generations is being a teacher.”

Tiffany O’Neal, a graduate student in the LBJ School and one of the student organizers, said she wanted to get as many student groups involved as possible.

“Every student group we contacted jumped on board,” she said.

Student groups involved with the symposium include Public Alliance for Communities of Color, the Green Society, the Center for Health and Social Policy and Social, Health, and Economic Policymakers. Issues that Jordan fought on behalf of, including environmental justice, juvenile justice and education, are still on the forefront of issues dealt with by students in the School of Public Affairs, O’Neal said.

“The one thing I knew about the LBJ School was that Barbara Jordan taught here, and that’s why I decided to come,” she said. “We all need to keep alive her legacy, her spirit and her passion for social justice.”