The Senate Finance Committee wrapped up two days of hearings on public universities Thursday, and this year the committee is taking a hard look at non-education related spending.
Committee Chair Jane Nelson of Flower Mound said that in a tight budget year, colleges and universities must prioritize students.
“These costs have grown exponentially over the years and I believe a top-to-bottom review is in order,” she said. “Many of these items are worthwhile, but we need to look at every single one of them and ask ourselves: was this intended as start-up money or is it part of a continuing commitment.”
The Senate budget first draft includes only $300 million for special items, down from over $1 billion last biennium. Nelson stressed that it’s just a starting point, and a place to begin the total review of non-education spending in state higher education.
To that end, Nelson appointed a workgroup, chaired by Senate Higher Education Committee Chair Kel Seliger of Amarillo, to consider special item spending in light of certain criteria. She charged them with ensuring requested special items aren’t redundant to other funded items, offer public benefit to the state and, most importantly Nelson said, they are fulfilling the core mission of higher education.
“It’s going to be a very tough assignment,” she told Seliger Wednesday.
Seliger spoke about special items at Monday’s first Finance Committee meeting. He said there are dozens of these types of appropriations across university systems, some going back to 1909. While many of them were intended to be one-time appropriations, they simply became part of the biennial budget and are awarded every two years.
“Some of the programs are really worthwhile, and have had value, some of them should’ve expired in the biennium in which they were granted and yet have kept going for years, even generations,” Seliger told his colleagues. “ I would argue that some of them aren’t really special or exceptional at all.”
Another issue that arose was the question of class credits following students as they may move from community college to four-year university or other transfers. It’s an issue that has been unresolved for too long, said Dallas Senator Royce West.
“We go back 20 years on this issue,” he said. “We still haven’t been able to achieve this goal of transferability.”
West told Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board Chair Bobby Jenkins, testifying before the committee for his agency Wednesday, that he hopes the state can meet the goal of 25 to 30 transferability agreements in the most popular majors in the upcoming interim, and report back to the Legislature in 2019 that the task is done.
Thursday, the Senate Nominations committee considered three nominees for the University of Texas Board of Regents, including one of their own, former Tyler Senator Kevin Eltife, who retired after last session. Members of the committee took the opportunity to quiz the nominees on their view of the relationship between the legislature and regents and about their philosophies of education in general.
Eltife, along with fellow nominees Janiece Longoria and James “Rad” Weaver, committed to good stewardship of state university funds, transparency in the admissions process, and making college more affordable and accessible.
“My interest is in higher education for all of Texas,” said Eltife. “We need to lift up all institutions. We need to make it transparent, affordable, easy access for all institutions in Texans.”