Senate

Photo Credit: Stephanie Tacy | Daily Texan Staff

The Texas Senate on Friday approved a bill allowing the open carry of firearms by licensed owners.

Although the House approved its version of the legislation last month, the bill still needs to go to a final vote in the House before being sent to Gov. Greg Abbott for signing. Abbott said he would sign any version of an open carry bill that comes to his desk.

The bill was passed in the Senate after much argument over a controversial amendment that would prohibit police officers from asking for the concealed handgun license of those openly carrying firearms. The bill passed with the amendment included.

Supporters of the amendment said it will prevent police from profiling and harassing minorities.

"If somebody is going to be profiled for walking around the streets of Houston or Austin with a gun, someone who looks like me is more likely to get stopped," Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) said, according to ABC 13.  

“[This] is the most egregious mistake I have ever seen us [the Texas Legislature] make,” Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) posted on Facebook, in reference to the amendment.

Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) argued that the amendment would, in practice, equate to the unrestricted open carrying of firearms by anybody, regardless of whether that person has the proper license, which advocates call constitutional carry.

"This is nothing but a backhanded way to accomplish constitutional carry," Whitmire said. "We are really, really playing with a dangerous matter. It's not something that we can afford to be wrong about."

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick praised the Senate for passing the open carry bill.

"With time running out on this legislative session, the Senate has once again stood up for the Second Amendment to ensure law-abiding licensed Texans have the right to open carry," Patrick said.

House Speaker Joe Straus said the bill for open carry on college campuses will be put to a vote before the legislative session ends June 1.

Budget committee reaches deal, prepares to release final budget for House and Senate vote

After months of negotiation, the joint House and Senate Budget Conference Committee on Thursday evening solidified its final version of the state budget for the next two years. Although the final size of the budget has yet to be publicly released, it is expected to be around $210 billion, according to The Texas Tribune.

The 10-member committee, composed of eight Republicans and two Democrats, hashed out the budget’s final details over the course of several days this week.

According to reports, the conference committee’s budget will not include a $3 million transfer from HIV and STD prevention programs into abstinence education, which had been a contentious component of the House budget.

The budget also includes the Senate’s proposed figure for public education, $1.5 billion, instead of the $2.2 billion the House proposed. Details about the budget’s higher education funding, which is distributed through a series of research funds and other targeted programs, are still to come.

Once the full bill is released, it will go to the House and Senate for a vote before heading to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

To read more about the conference committee’s decisions, read The Texas Tribune’s coverage here

Photo Credit: Stephanie Tacy | Daily Texan Staff

A Texas Senate committee voted Monday to send the House’s open carry bill to the Senate floor for consideration.

HB 910, which Rep. Larry Phillips (R-Sherman) authored, would allow licensed gun owners to openly carry handguns in belt or shoulder holsters. Senators reviewed the measure, which passed in the House in mid-April, in the State Affairs committee Monday. 

“I think everyone that is tackling these issues wants to work against violence. Sometimes we see these things in very different ways,” said Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls), who laid out Phillip’s bill Monday.

Estes presented the bill with a few adjustments to the House version, including the removal of a controversial amendment by Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) that would prevent officers from asking open carriers if they have a handgun license.

Later down the line, lawmakers may attempt to attach “campus carry” to HB 910, according to multiple reports. Several testimonies at the hearing brought up the possible addition.

Rep. Allen Fletcher (R-Cypress), author of the House campus carry bill,  proposed a similar amendment when HB 910 was heard before the full House last month, but the measure was ultimately withdrawn.

Campus carry would allow licensed handgun owners over the age of 21 to bring their guns on campus grounds and in university buildings. Certain buildings, such as residence halls, K-12 schools and on-campus hospitals, would be exempt from the policy. Additionally, private institutions could opt out of campus carry.

Middle Eastern studies senior Jordan Pahl, along with other UT students, attended the hearing to testify against open carry and a potential campus carry amendment. Pahl said most University officials and students oppose campus carry, including UT-Austin President William Powers Jr. and UT System Chancellor William McRaven.

“Students and stakeholders will continue to oppose this legislation,” Pahl said. “It doesn’t contribute to the academic atmosphere of universities, and it does not make our campuses safer. We deserve a voice in what happens to our campuses and communities.”

Later during the hearing, Estes added that while most university officials oppose the bill, Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp is in favor of the measure. Estes did not confirm that campus carry would be added as an amendment to the bill.

“There seems to be some concern that these bills will be combined,” Estes said. “I’m not saying they will or they won't.”

Troy Gay, Austin Police Department assistant chief, testified at the hearing on behalf of APD. He said the department believes that while open carry may be better suited in rural areas, it should not be implemented in cities.

“In highly populated areas open carry may cause unnecessary alarm due to our citizens and confusion to law enforcement officers during chaotic situations,” Gay said.

This discussion of open carry follows Sunday’s motorcycle gang shoot out at a Twin Peaks in Waco, where nine people were killed and 18 were injured. The shootout was used as an argument against open carry at the hearing.

Troy said the presence of openly carried guns in similar situations could worsen them. State Affairs Chairwoman Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) said open carry and Sunday’s incident are not related.  

"This bill does not have anything to do with what went on [Sunday,]” Huffman said.

The senate has passed its own versions of campus and open carry this legislative session. For HB 910 to become law, the Senate must pass the bill and the House must approve amendments made in Senate.

The bill must also obtain Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature. According to multiple sources, Abbott plans to sign legislation related to both open and campus carry.   

Photo Credit: Stephanie Tacy | Daily Texan Staff

Hundreds of students across campus working on green fee-funded projects have helped reroute over 27,000 pounds of UT’s compost from landfills, plant over 75,000 seedlings and grow about 250 pounds of produce.

The $5 student fee, the green fee, that makes these environmental projects, along with other University environmental initiatives, possible is at risk for removal this legislative session. Green fee-funded programs include projects such as the Microfarm, Longhorn Lights Out and the solar-powered charging stations.

In order for the green fee to be renewed past summer 2016, lawmakers must approve one of two bills filed in the House and Senate that would allow the fee to continue with student approval.

Sen. José Rodríguez (D-El Paso), author of the Senate version of the bill, placed his bill on Thursday’s intent calendar but said he doesn’t think there is enough support to renew the green fee.

“Right now the bill is stuck, unless more members of the Senate have a change of heart,” Rodríguez said in an email.

The House version of the bill remains pending in committee after an April 22 hearing.

All students pay the green fee, and it costs $5 during long semesters and $2.50 each summer semester. Karen Blaney, program coordinator in the Office of Sustainability, said most students pay, on average, $40 to $50 during their time on campus.

The fee was established on campus in 2011 under the authorization of a piece of legislation passed during the 2009 legislative session. The original bill stipulates that a University could implement an environmental-service fee that would be renewable for five years if approved by a student vote. UT’s program is currently entering its fifth year of operation.

The original bill does not clarify what happens after that fifth year. Current legislation that Rodríguez and Rep. Elliot Naishtat (D-Austin), who is the author of the original bill, filed would allow renewal of the fee every five years if the fee is approved by a student body vote.

“There are students all the time wanting to see a more environmentally friendly campus, and this is an opportunity for students to have a little bit of control — have a little influence in where their campus is going,” said Jaclyn Kachelmeyer, Green Fee Committee member and international relations and global studies senior who has been lobbying for the bills this session.

Since 2011, the fee has issued 103 grants and 67 distinct projects and employed 101 students in 59 new jobs. 

Approximately 6,800 students, representing 20 student organizations, submitted a letter to lawmakers in support of the green fee’s renewal.

“I hope it gets renewed,” said Allie Jeong, president of Longhorn Lights Out. “I think them taking away all the opportunities and potential programs at UT is pretty terrible.” 

Blaney said current projects would be completed even if the fund is not renewed for a sixth year.

“We would facilitate the completion of any project that has been funded, so nobody has to worry about that,” Blaney said. “I am certain that everything that has been approved this far is safe.”

The challenge would be for ongoing and new potential projects, which would lose a funding source, if the bills do not pass, director of sustainability Jim Walker said.

“They would have a challenge to figure out how to keep their operations going,” Walker said. “Now we would help them with that, but there’s not more money lying around the university, so it would be a challenge.”

Photo Credit: Stephanie Tacy | Daily Texan Staff

The Texas Senate voted to place certain limits on Texas public universities’ tuition rates Thursday.

The bill, authored by Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo), would set certain “performance measures” that public universities must meet to raise tuition. These measures range from four-year graduation rates and the number of undergraduate degrees granted to the number of hours taught by tenured faculty and administrative costs.

The bill limits tuition increases to 1 percent over the cost of inflation until 2018. After 2018, universities could raise their tuition by 3 percent, if they meet the performance measures set in the bill. Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown) added these regulations to the bill in an amendment.

Seliger said the bill is intended to hold universities accountable for proposed tuition increases.

“[The bill] brings together the concepts of accountability and tuition by requiring institutions to prove performance if they wish to increase the costs,” Seliger said.

In 2003, the Texas Legislature deregulated tuition costs and granted universities’ governing boards, such as the Board of Regents, control of tuition rates. Since then, tuition has increased across the state.

Tuition at UT has risen from about $2,721 to $4,905 a semester since deregulation, although it has remained relatively constant for the past several years. Tuition for next school year is set at the same $4,905 for traditional, or non-fixed, in-state tuition.

University officials have voiced opposition to state tuition regulation.

Incoming president Gregory Fenves said he thinks the Board of Regents is the best determiner of tuition rates at UT.

“I think the University [and] the Board of Regents working as a public agency has the knowledge and the availability to set the right tuition level to provide the revenue to the University for a quality education,” Fenves said. “I think that’s the governance structure that will get the best outcome — balancing the public purpose of the University and the needs of the University to provide a quality education.”

John Brown, co-director of the Invest in Texas campaign, a nonpartisan lobbying effort made up of governing student bodies, said he was surprised a tuition regulation bill passed in the Senate. He said Invest in Texas and SG members plan to meet with representatives about the policy. 

“The whole sentiment is that college costs are just skyrocketing, so the Legislature response is, ‘Well, let us have that, and we’ll cut everything down and make your degree nothing,’” Brown said. “Well, when you cut tuition down, you forget that that’s your allotment — what the University spends on its operating budget.”

Photo Credit: Stephanie Tacy | Daily Texan Staff

The open carry of handguns state-wide is one step closer to being legal.

The Texas House gave initial approval to its version of the open carry bill, HB 910, on Friday. The Texas Senate approved its version of the bill in March. 

HB 910 would allow licensed handgun carriers to openly carry their guns in a holster. The open carry of long guns and rifles is already legal in the state. Rep. Larry Phillips (R-Sherman), primary author of the bill, said he thinks the bill will expand Texans’ rights under the Second Amendment. 

“This bill goes too far for some and not far enough for others, but I think its a good start to show that we as Texans can be respectful and still protect ourselves,” Phillips said.

Representatives were set to debate the bill Tuesday, but Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) pointed out a technical error that postponed discussion. The error was resolved the same day.

Martinez Fischer and Rep. Borris Miles (D-Houston) brought up points of order Friday, but the points were overruled. One of Martinez Fischer’s points was in response to an amendment Rep. Allen Fletcher (R-Cypress) filed that would allow the concealed carry of handguns on college campuses.

“This amendment has to do with what a licensed holder may or may not do,” Fletcher said. “This is the campus protection amendment to campus carry and is acceptable to the author.”

Fletcher, who also authored the House’s campus carry bill, HB 937, ultimately withdrew the measure. Representatives are set to debate campus carry at a later date.

Two of the 18 proposed amendments to the bill were approved. One amendment rewords the phrase “nursing home” to “nursing facility” when referring to facilities where open carry is not allowed.

The other amendment lightens the penalty for openly carrying a gun in a location with the proper signage displayed to ban to prevent open carry. The penalty for disobeying the signage would change from a class A misdemeanor to a class C misdemeanor, resulting in a fine of up to $200.

Additional reporting by Jackie Wang.

Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

The Texas House’s open carry bill, originally scheduled for a review on the House floor Tuesday, was delayed in the Senate because of a technical error.

The bill, which Rep. Larry Phillips (R-Sherman) proposed, would allow licensed handgun carriers to openly carry handguns in a belt or shoulder holster. The bill initially passed through House Homeland Security and Public Safety committee last month with a 7–2 vote.

According to several reports, Rep. Trey Martinez Fisher (D-San Antonio) brought the point of order to the attention of the House before the discussion’s start, citing technical errors in how committee testimonies were recorded.

The bill quickly passed back in and out of committee Tuesday, but it is not clear when the full House will hear HB 910 because of the delay.

The Senate approved its version of the policy in March.

Every legislative session in Texas, taxes are a pretty big deal. A legislator’s position on how the state spends and collects money can have huge implications for their future as an elected official, and certain legislators who return to their districts with reputations as “fiscal hawks” are frequently greeted with a hero’s welcome. 

This has led to several distinct fiscally conservative developments within Texas state government. One of these features is spending caps, a provision passed 37 years ago within the Texas Constitution that stipulates that the growth of state spending may not grow beyond the state’s expected economic growth. That means that state spending can’t grow faster than its taxes come in. 

Although Texas may have its fiscal issues from time to time, this provision has served the state well in preventing quick growth in tax rates. Unfortunately, this provision is being undermined this year by the exact kind of people who herald themselves as “fiscal conservatives” during election season.  

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced a plan last month to circumvent the cap, effectively allowing certain types of spending to not count against the cap. 

Issuing debt is an important tool for the state to use to pay for things that are necessary but aren’t in the budget this year. The spending cap holds legislators responsible by ensuring that in future sessions the payments on that debt aren’t somehow magically not considered spending. Additional provisions within the Senate budget and its accompanying  legislation, SB 1 and SJR 1, would cut property taxes, typically collected by school districts, and compensate the school districts with state money that is similarly not counted toward the spending limit. If these legislators were arguing in good faith that spending needed to be increased and the spending cap compromised, they could make a very good argument. Instead they are trying to herald their status as fiscal conservatives while actually adding tax cuts to the budget that the state isn’t prepared to pay for.  

Changing the definition of “spending” is good practice for writing a budget, but cutting taxes without changing spending just for the sake of political favorability is shortsighted. There is tremendous pressure in the Capitol for tax cuts every biennium, but part of the hard work of governance is deciding whether or not you can deliver on that. Cutting taxes isn’t inherently bad — a comparatively low tax burden is part of the reason the state is so popular for business and individuals — but cutting them just to say you did it is disingenuous.  

Texas faces a litany of issues related to money every year that might be more deserving of tax cuts. It ranks 46th out of the states and D.C. in spending per pupil and ranks first out of every state in percentage uninsured. 

Whether or not the state will choose to fully fund the pension systems is a big question mark. Texas seems to be constantly embroiled in lawsuits over school finance, and just last August was found to be in violation of the Texas Constitution for failing to “provide a constitutionally adequate education for all Texans,” according to the Austin-American Statesman

Most notably, a group of six trade organizations, representing entities like the Texas Association of Business, the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association and the Texas Oil and Gas Association, signed a letter calling for investing in Texas infrastructure and education before cutting taxes. In light of ongoing problems like these, it is imperative that legislators take note. When the state grapples with health care, infrastructure and education problems, all Texans bear the costs. The Senate needs to reconsider its shortsighted bid to cut taxes before they’ve taken care of the difficult business of addressing ongoing fiscal problems.  

Tax cuts have a special place in the hearts of Texans, but trying to redefine “spending” to bring about those cuts is irresponsible. Senators are elected to do the people’s work in the Capitol, not cravenly manipulate the budget as a kind of political tool. The legislature should pass a budget that will help Texas stay the great place it is long into the future, where students leave public school ready for the world and sound infrastructure creates an environment where businesses can thrive. 

Maybe that’s a naïve thing to want. Maybe I have a bias as someone born and raised in Texas, who’s seen the boundless frontier of opportunity that this state has to offer, but I want legislators intent on fixing problems, not selfishly laying the groundwork for future ones.

Matula is a finance senior from Austin. Follow him on Twitter @chucketlist.

Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

The Senate is set to hear a bill that would provide UT-Austin with $67,500,000 for renovations at Welch Hall as well as construction on other facilities within the UT System and across the state.

On Wednesday, the Senate Higher Education Committee approved SB 150, a bill that grants state universities more than $2 billion in tuition revenue bonds (TRBs). The complete Senate has not set a date to hear the bill.

TRBs are bonds funded by the state for specific facilities-related projects at universities. According to the bill’s author, Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo), institutions statewide submitted proposals for their projects to the legislature. In total, 64 projects were proposed, Seliger said.

“We’ve worked extensively for months with institutions and system administration to ensure that only the most important projects are included.“

UT System Chancellor William McRaven testified on the bill at the hearing. He said UT system enrollment and research has increased since the last issuance of revenue bonds in 2006.

“While enrollment has grown and our research has increased, our facilities, kind of, continue to age,” McRaven said.

Most of UT’s requested TRB funding would go to STEM-related facilities, according to McRaven. He said out-of-date buildings and laboratories are not conducive to research.

“Our facilities are anywhere from 25 to 45 years old,” McRaven said. “And we really do have to keep up with the competitive nature of the infrastructure for having 21st-century educational research.” 

In the bill’s current form, UT-Austin is slated to receive $67,500,000 to renovate Welch Hall.  

There are several other bills that would offer state universities revenue bonds, including one, which Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) proposed, that would give UT-Austin $100 million for Welch Hall and $105 million for renovations to the McCombs School of Business.

Kelsey Evans, College of Natural Sciences chief external relations officer, said the University requested $100 million for Welch Hall, and she is “cautiously optimistic” they will receive between $67.5 and $100 million from the state.

University spokesman Gary Susswein said Welch Hall was chosen to receive funding because it would have a high impact on the student body.

“The renovations at Welch Hall would make significant positive impact on our research, on our students and in maintaining our excellence in the sciences,” Susswein said.

Welch’s oldest wing, built in the late 1920s, is undergoing a $30 million renovation project in June, funded from the University’s and the College of Natural Sciences’ budgets, Evans said. The TRBs would go toward renovating the rest of the building.

The money will go to adding and updating classrooms with office renovations, the creation of collaborative space, increased security measures and updating labs, many of which Evans said are not suitable for lab experiments.

“It’s still going to be Welch, but it’s going to be a modern, sophisticated version of Welch Hall,” Evans said.

Cameron Crane, Student Government natural sciences representative and college ambassador, said most classrooms and offices in the building do not warrant much renovation, but the lab facilities do.

Biology junior Josh Shandera, who has taken many courses in Welch, said the building, as a whole, needs renovation. He said he thinks the projects should be funded by the state.

“The labs are older,” Shandera said. “They’re smaller. They’re cramped. The building itself — you can definitely tell they’re not new. For conducting research, you want to have the best facilities possible.”

Photo Credit: Stephanie Tacy | Daily Texan Staff

The Texas Senate gave a final vote in favor of campus carry, a bill that would allow concealed handguns to be carried in college and university buildings.

No debate preceded the passage of Senate Bill 11, primarily authored by Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury).

“Let me again say some very special thank yous to my colleagues in correspondence with this legislation,” Birdwell said. “Let me also say thank you to the colleges that were on the opposing side of this legislation for the rigor of the debate yesterday.”

UT System Chancellor William McRaven said in a statement he is still apprehensive about the effects of the bill on students, faculty and staff of UT System institutions. 

"I continue to hear from students, parents, staff and faculty about their uneasiness related to this legislation," McRaven said in the statement. "In light of this, it is my responsibility to continue to express our concerns as the Senate bill goes to the House and the House bill goes through the process."

University spokesperson Gary Susswein said in an email to the Texan that President William Power Jr.'s stance on campus carry has not changed.

"President Powers has consistently and strongly expressed his concerns about the safety of allowing guns on campus," Susswein said in the email.

Hospitals, preschools, grade schools, sporting events and residence halls would receive exemption from the policy if the bill becomes law. Additionally, private and independent institutions could ban campus carry on their campuses.

Similar legislation, House Bill 937, is pending a committee vote after an almost five-hour hearing earlier this week.