UT System plans to push for more state funding

Collin Eaton

The UT System’s chief governmental relations officer said Thursday that System leaders must continue to push for increased state funding during the next legislative session, even in the face of a massive state budget deficit.

Barry McBee, general counsel for the UT System, said the next Legislature could face the worst budget shortfall in Texas history, and budget maneuvers used to quell the $10 billion shortfall in 2003 cannot be used again. He said UT will need more — not less — state funding in the 2012-2013 biennium to keep up with the cost of growth.

“We will ask as further cuts are made to be treated equitably and not bear a disproportionate percentage of further reductions,” McBee said. “We all acknowledge the need of UT-Austin for more funding in its quest to become the nation’s greatest public university.”

The previous Legislature spent $6.4 billion in temporary stimulus funds to fill its own budget gap, including $9.9 million for UT. So the Legislature will begin its session behind where it would normally be, he said.

The state’s shortfall goes back to 2006, when legislators slashed property taxes but failed to generate enough revenue from new business taxes to sustain the budget. The sales tax also failed to perform as the economic recession started to settle in — even the population and economic growth that Texas enjoyed put budget strains on the state’s public education and health services, McBee said. The result is a budget shortfall estimated as high as $25 billion.

After Republican lawmakers increased their majority to 48 seats in the Texas House in the midterm election, there will be little enthusiasm to spend the Rainy Day Fund, Texas’s saving account, because the state may face another shortfall in the next legislative session, he said.

Regent James Dannenbaum said legislation after the introduction of new business taxes in 2006 exempted more and more businesses, leaving the state fewer tax dollars.

“Part of that shortfall is not economic activity, it’s a policy change by the Legislature — regardless of how you feel about it, it’s not likely to change,” Dannenbaum said.

Texas saved $1.2 billion from cuts to state agencies’ budgets this year, but because many areas were put off-limits, 40 percent of the cuts came from higher education. The UT System dropped $200 million into the state’s combined higher education contribution of $520 million. The cuts amount to $500 per student at UT’s academic institutions and $7,000 per student at health institutions.

McBee said in an odd way, the budget shortfall could also present an opportunity for UT to cast off regulatory burdens — eliminating the need for unused, unread reports and approval for decisions from other governmental agencies. But UT’s top priority will be to ask the Legislature for general revenue to replace the stimulus funds in the University’s budget, he said.

How UT’s chief administrators interact with the Legislature will be key to pushing the University’s goals.

UT Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa said after the next legislative session begins in January, he will start living at the Capitol for the next six months. He said UT representatives have met with 150 legislators to convey the interests of the UT System campuses, and must continue to express the idea that higher education is an investment in the future.

“We will be easily accessible to legislative leadership,” he said. “It’s very important to have that presence. We’re all going to be in this together — and the regents are going to have to support us in articulating the importance of higher education.”

Regent William Eugene Powell said the board should create a schedule so they can always be at the Capitol speaking with legislators.

“I know that’s a time commitment for all of us, but I know that would be helpful,” Powell said.