Leaders lobby state Senators for financing in next budget

Melissa Ayala

UT President William Powers Jr. was not one of the eight UT System presidents who testified before the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday because he is in the hospital recovering from a pulmonary embolism.

The presidents, who represented eight of UT’s 15 system institutions, spoke to encourage legislators to prioritize funding for higher education as they seek to balance a $27 billion budget shortfall. More than a hundred students as well as other educators were also at the meeting.

“I am here to underscore the commitment of the board and administration of the UT System to continue to provide high quality, affordable education and to be part of the solution of the economic circumstances of the state of Texas,” said system Vice Chairman Steve Hicks.

UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa said the system has reduced spending by $1.4 billion the last five years by avoiding costs and increasing investment earnings. He asked committee members to consider additional university funding to the introduced budget.

“The cuts to higher education are deep, they will adversely affect access, affordability and excellence,”Cigarroa said. “Our difficult task before us is to help address this challenge and to mitigate these effects to the fullest extent possible. But, that is not to say that it will not be without pain.”

Cigarroa, along with other officials, urged the committee to consider reallocating a greater portion of funds to higher education, citing universities as key generators of working Texans and important research.

“If you have the opportunity to allocate more than what the base will represent, it’s my strong opinion that higher education is among the most important investments, even during these difficult times,” he said.

UT currently receives $1 in funding for every $10 earned in research grants through the Competitive Knowledge Fund, which is reserved for UT, the University of Houston, Texas Tech and Texas A&M. Cigarroa said the fund is crucial for UT since state funding is calculated based on enrollment rates and UT is near capacity.

“For UT Austin, that’s why we pushed for the Competitive Knowledge Fund, which does emphasize excellence in research,” he said. “The only campus that is growing [slowly] is UT Austin because they are at capacity. If you take a look at all the other campuses, they are having record enrollment growth.”

State Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said the current funding formula hinders institutions like UT, which is near capacity, adding that there should be an alternative funding formula.
Last session, state Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, filed a bill that would offer a different funding formula that would emphasize research.

“I recommended different formulas for upper-level institutions based on their classifications and had suggested that if institutions didn’t like the formula they were seeing, they would be given incentives to get to the formula they would like,” Ogden said. “It’s an issue that is now ripe because [Shapiro] brought it up, and I think [Shapiro] needs to pursue it.”

About 50 students from UT student lobbying initiative Invest in Texas gathered at the committee meeting to testify in front of Senate members. Invest in Texas includes lobbyists from SG, Senate of College Councils, Graduate Student Assembly and the student body at large. The Senate’s proposed budget for the 2012-2013 biennium included a 41-percent cut to financial aid.

“We just wanted to bring students down and show support and show that students do care about funding,” said Blake Baker, financial director of the Senate of College Councils. “This is the time of times for higher education in the state of Texas and at UT Austin. All of us are going to begin pitching in where we can, talking with representatives from our districts to highlight the importance of all our issues — funding being blatant — but also other things like guns on campus.”

Powers’ testimony will take place next week after he is released from the hospital. UT spokesman Don Hale has confirmed that Powers is in stable condition.