Jimmy Talarico

A student coalition met with four Texas senators and two Texas House representatives on Monday to raise the Longhorn voice at the Capitol.

Students from groups such as Student Government, the Senate of College Councils and the Graduate Student Assembly formed the Invest in Texas coalition, a group that will lobby for higher education issues such as opposing budget cuts to higher education, supporting competitive insurance benefits and gun control on campus.

Chelsea Adler, Senate of College Councils president, said she and students Jimmy Talarico and Daniel Spikes met with senators and representatives on Monday to talk about the coalition’s platform and gauge their responsiveness.
“The meetings today have gone really well. Everyone has been really receptive to our ideas,” said Alder, a government and social work senior.

The group’s main priority is to keep budget cuts to higher education proportionate to the total amount spent on higher education, she said. Gov. Rick Perry’s $182.3 billion two-year budget plan, which will last from Sept. 1, 2009 until Aug. 31, 2011, allots 12 percent of all spending to higher education, but in the last fiscal year higher education made up almost 42 percent of all budget cuts with a $75.5 billion deficit, she said. This session, the Legislative Budget Board, an agency that recommends potential cuts to state agencies, suggested a $93.2 million cut to UT, said University Chief Financial Officer Kevin Hegarty.

The group will also lobby for competitive insurance benefits and work with other universities to gain the ability for public schools to choose their own individual safety policies, including the ability to choose to outlaw guns on campus, she said.

“This is such a pivotal time for our University, and we need as many students as we can to get involved with lobbying for these issues,” Adler said. “There’s lots of ways to get involved and make an impact, and the easiest one is lobbying.”

The coalition’s first lobbying day will be in March at the Capitol, she said.

Eventually, the group wants to work with other Texas schools and the rest of the UT System to gain the same benefits for all schools in the state, said Talarico, SG executive director and government senior.

“Students have seen the effects of budget cuts on our campus already with things like increased class sizes, entire programs cut, reduced facility hours and fees at the doctor’s office,” he said. “If we want to prevent that from happening again, students must become involved in the legislative process. These lawmakers are deciding the future of our campus.”

One of the group’s plans is to have members of its organizations send postcards to their hometown’s representatives explaining the Invest in Texas platform, Talarico said. Getting home districts on the side of the students is a good to reach out to the Capitol, said Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, who met with Adler, Talarico and Spikes.

“The Capitol has to hear your voice from all over the state before you really have an impact on these issues,” said Spikes, the legislative director of the Graduate Student Assembly and an educational administration graduate student.

Lobbying the Lege

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series examining what student organizations are doing to lobby the 82nd Texas Legislature.

The Legislature Working Group, a committee of student leaders, laid out a plan to keep UT affordable, academically competitive and gun-free at its first meeting of the semester Sunday.

Members discussed how the new session will affect higher education and launched “Invest In Texas,” a breakdown of the group’s lobbying strategy.

Student Government Executive Director Jimmy Talarico said “Invest in Texas” is a compilation of students’ needs and legislative priorities. He said the group’s strategy is to make students aware and get them active.

“We wanted to come up with a plan that effectively represents our issues, effectively represents students and gets students involved to learn the process,” he said. “I think this proposal straddles that line of both effectiveness and efficiency.”

The Legislative Budget Board, a joint committee that recommends appropriations for state agencies, circulated a potential state budget in which the number of TEXAS Grant recipients would be cut in half and community colleges may be forced to close.

Talarico said the budget proposal shows that legislators see higher education as a place with a lot of leeway to make cuts.

“Our challenge, as we move forward, is trying to reverse that perception and make it clear that higher education is not an expenditure, but an investment,” he said.

The group will offer lobby training sessions, at which two experienced lobbyists will teach students how to push their legislation forward. The group will also draft letters students can send to hometown representatives and will host an official “Invest in Texas” Lobby Day to inform and mobilize students.

Civil Engineering senior Loren Campos, president of the University Leadership Initiative, pushed to add protection for funding for undocumented students.

“I think the message is very clear,” Campos said. “The name ‘Invest in Texas’ encompasses a lot of the issues that we are addressing, but in terms of content, I would add support for protecting tuition for undocumented students.”

The Senate of College Councils will lobby for the first time as a part of the “Invest in Texas” platform, said government and social work senior Chelsea Adler.

“We technically have never taken a lead role in these kinds of initiatives, but this year, I think Student Government and Senate both realize this is probably the most important legislative session for higher education in Texas,” she said. “We are pooling all our resources together to be as effective as possible.”

Although academics are their main focal point, Adler said the Senate of College Councils fully supports the new legislative proposal.

“Something like affordable funding is going to be more relevant to us than handguns, but we’re still prepared to help out wherever we need to,” she said.

“Invest In Texas” will run on a timeline beginning Jan. 24 and run through the end of the session.