High time that Lege tackles big issues

It may be hard to believe for some and easy for others, but after three months we’ve passed the halfway point of the 83rd session of the Texas Legislature. At this juncture, we have the opportunity to look back at our predictions for the session from January and see which developments we predicted and which ones we missed. And now that the 60-day period for filing bills has passed and the debate over them will soon begin in earnest, we can look forward to the biggest issues of the next 62 days. This session’s lasting impact is starting to take shape.

So far, several issues directly affecting UT have attracted high levels of attention. Foremost among these is the ongoing debate over whether to end the existing ban on concealed firearms on college campuses. Four bills that would end the ban came up for heated debate in the House Homeland and Public Safety Committee on March 14, but all remain pending in committee. This newspaper, as well as UT President William Powers Jr., UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, UT Student Government, the Austin Police Department and majorities of polled students at schools statewide, strongly opposes concealed firearms on university campuses.

Also making headlines this session is the power struggle taking place between the UT System Board of Regents and President Powers, which spilled over into the Capitol in February. After reports suggesting that the regents wished to fire Powers and countermand his authority, the Legislature leapt to commend Powers for his leadership in a series of tributes on the Texas Senate floor. Since then, they’ve consistently defended him against the regents’ alleged “micromanagement” and “character assassination,” in the words of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

The Legislature relaunched a joint oversight committee to examine the regents’ proper governance role, and several lawmakers filed bills to limit the regents’ authority over individual universities. Of course, the Legislature will no longer be able to protect Powers after the session adjourns in May, but a bill filed by Senate Higher Education Committee Chairman Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, would prohibit Gov. Rick Perry’s appointees to the board from voting on budgetary or personnel matters — like firing a university president — before they’d been confirmed by the Senate, a bill we support.

Last week the Senate passed its version of the state budget for the next biennium. The most noteworthy aspect of the legislation is that it provides $1 billion less to public education than the House proposal, which has yet to be voted on. The Legislature slashed $5.3 billion from the state’s public schools in 2011, a move which a state district judge declared unconstitutional in February. The House Appropriations Committee proposed to restore more than half of the funds, but the Senate’s budget did not. If the House budget passes as it exists now, the differences will have to be reconciled before the bill reaches the governor’s desk.

Perhaps the biggest issue so far — and rightfully so — has been water. As the state endures the third year of debilitating drought, the Legislature is finally making significant headway on funding the water management projects proposed by the Texas Water Development Board. A proposal by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, to allocate $2 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund toward the TWDB’s recommendations will be called for a vote on the House floor on Wednesday. We support Ritter’s legislation, but we also remain concerned that the TWDB’s methodology for calculating future water needs may be unsound. If their projections are overly optimistic, as a UT study has claimed, then the problem needs to be re-evaluated before any solutions can be deemed adequate.

In the next two months, pay attention to these issues. What happens next will have a profound effect on this state, this University and you.