Appropriations Chairman Pitts: amendments limiting UT System spending will stay

Joshua Fechter

The Texas House of Representatives’ chief budget writer said Wednesday he intends to keep amendments to the proposed state budget limiting the spending power of the UT System Board of Regents and UT System administration. 

State Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, chairs the House Appropriations Committee and attached the amendments to the Senate’s budget bill in response to the board’s March 20 decision to conduct an external investigation of the UT Law School Foundation and UT School of Law. 

Lawmakers interpreted the investigation as a political move intended to oust University President William Powers Jr. and advised the board to allow the Texas Attorney General’s Office to conduct another investigation in order to avoid spending additional tax dollars.

Regents have since decided to follow that advice, but Pitts said he would keep the amendments while the budget conference committee meets.

“My fear is, if we take that out, that once we leave here, the board will continue acting the way did prior to the session,” Pitts said. “It’s really my intention to keep a watchful eye on the UT Board of Regents.”

One of Pitts’ amendments would allocate the $23.9 million originally intended to fund the UT System Administration during the 2014-15 biennium to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Doing such would require the coordinating board to transfer those funds to the System with permission from the Texas Legislative Budget Board and the governor’s office. 

The System could not use those funds to investigate its individual institutions or the administration of those institutions, or to request records from those bodies.

Under another amendment, the administration would not receive its share of the Available University Fund, a state endowment that funds institutions within the UT and A&M University systems.

UT System spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said the System intends to continue discussions with Pitts in the hope that “a positive resolution can be reached.”

“However, were the amendments to remain in the bill, there is no doubt that the impact would be significant,” LaCoste-Caputo said. “Specific details would have to be determined if we come to that point.”

In addition to the amendments, legislators have sought to realign the board with what they consider the board’s proper governance role.

The Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency was relaunched to investigate the ongoing conflict between the board and UT-Austin, but has not met since an organizational meeting in March.

State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, co-chairs the committee with state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo. 

Branch said committee members have been reviewing information they requested from the System. He said the committee may schedule a meeting within the next few weeks, but could continue its work while the legislature is not in session.

Lawmakers have also sought to limit regents through legislation.

A bill filed by Seliger, who chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee, would limit regents from “interfering” in the daily operations of universities under their purview. It would also prohibit regents who are appointed when the legislature is not in session from voting until regents have appeared before the Senate Nominations Committee. Gov. Rick Perry has appointed all sitting regents.

The House Higher Education Committee left the bill pending Wednesday. The Senate approved the bill 29-2.

Branch said he is unsure if Perry will sign the bill or if the House will pass it.

Branch said the bill would help quell conflicts between boards and university administrations statewide, although the bill was filed in response to controversy at the UT System.

“To me, while an incident often brings into focus what the statutory and constitutional and regental rules are, which is what this has done, we’re trying to step back and think broadly and make sure we’re doing something that’s good for all of Texas higher education going forward,” Branch said.