Texas needs tuition revenue bonds

The fate of funding for more than 60 campus construction projects across the state, totaling more than $2.5 billion, rests in the hands of Gov. Rick Perry, who can choose to either add the issue of tuition revenue bonds, the main funding mechanism for campus construction projects at universities across the state, to his call for the special session or letting them languish in the Legislature until the 84th session begins in 2015. 

On the line is funding for projects ranging from an effort to replace water systems at Texas State Technical College (for which the Senate issued a mere $4 million in TRBs) to the construction of the new Engineering Education and Research Center on the UT-Austin campus, for which the Senate granted TRBs totaling $95 million (which still account for less than a third of the building’s total projected cost). Although universities pay back the state for TRBs with tuition dollars or student fees, the state reimburses universities with general revenue. Although for nearly a decade between 1997 and 2006, the Legislature granted TRBs every other session, an extremely limited number of TRBs have been funded since that time. 

Given the 7-year-long TRB drought in the past three legislative sessions, it seems like legislators would be able to agree to at least partially fund TRBs. But the students of Texas have no such luck. In the words of state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Democrat from Laredo and the former chair of the Higher Education Committee, legislators “simply ran out of time.” 

But from the sidelines, the Legislature’s handling of TRBs seemed to run up against more than a time limit. The effort played out like a tennis match in which one player decides to drop the racket and hold the ball hostage. The Senate served up the original bill, filed by Zaffirini, and asked for $2.4 billion in TRB authorizations with a unanimous vote. The House countered with an amended bill which brought the amount of TRBs authorized up to $2.7 billion. Then, for all intents and purposes, the lower chamber dropped the racket and stood still on the court, refusing to appoint any representatives to reconcile the two versions of the bill, a move that is customary but not required. Now, Gov. Perry will have to explicitly add the issue of TRBs to the special session agenda for the chambers to reconsider them, placing up to $2.7 billion in higher education funding in the hands of a man whose unknowable political plans make him nothing so much as a wild card. 

According to Gregory Fenves, the current dean of the engineering school, the new engineering building would “create a culture of innovation” in the Engineering College and provide “a much better learning environment” for students. Clarke Rahrig, an electrical engineering senior and president of the Student Engineering Council, called the current engineering building “severely outdated in terms of technology and facilities.” But even those with the biggest stake in the project recognize the importance of TRBs not just to the engineering college at UT-Austin, but to the state as a whole. 

“I hope Gov. Perry does add it to the call,” Fenves said when asked what would happen should the governor choose not to address TRBs during the special session. “And not just for this project, but for the 60 projects at universities across the state.” 

Among the projects the TRB bill would have helped fund was a renovation of a building on the Texas A&M-Galveston campus which state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, called “a tin warehouse” and “the worst facility that we have on any campus in our state.” 

In other words, not passing a TRB bill puts at risk funding not just for the creation of “much better learning environments,” but also for the creation of workable learning environments, period.