State could cut higher education funding in 2019

Chase Karacostas

With low starting budget projections and large bills for Hurricane Harvey aid and Medicaid, higher education funding may be in danger of being cut when the state Legislature reconvenes next year.

State Comptroller Glenn Hegar, who collects the state’s taxes and monitors its revenue, said in a January Senate Finance Committee hearing that the state will only have a $94 million “beginning balance” compared to $880 million in 2017 and $7.3 billion in 2015. The finance committee helps write the state’s biennial budget each session.

To make up for budget constraints, the first thing the Legislature does is turn to the comptroller to find more money, education and law professor Norma Cantu said. 

“The next reaction for the Legislature would be to look at reallocating resources, which means that one part of the state budget would be starved in order to support another part,” Cantu said. “That becomes a very divisive exercise, and the last recourse would be to look at raising taxes.”

State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, is a member of the House’s Higher Education Committee and is currently working on an interim legislative committee looking at improving higher education funding. Howard said historically, when the state faces severe budget constraints, higher education is often cut.

This is because unlike K-12 public education or Medicaid, higher education is not mandated to receive a certain level of state funding each year, which Howard said makes it an easy target for funding cuts.

“It’s not really the first (the Legislature) goes to, so much as it’s the last that gets anything,” Howard said. “(Nevertheless), the majority of legislators highly value higher education and want to support it.”

Raymund Paredes, commissioner of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, said he doubts higher education will receive drastic changes in funding. However, Paredes said if the budget is tight, then it is hard to argue higher education should receive increased funding when other areas need more resources.

“Texas is growing very fast, and I’m not sure the tax base is growing as fast as the population and our needs are,” Paredes said.

With all of these factors, Cantu said it makes it hard for students to predict what the cost of a degree might look like. 

“They are not receiving a commitment that guarantees that the funding will be there,” Cantu said.

UT has already felt the pressure of budget constraints in the past. In 2016, the summer before the 2017 legislative session, the state asked all agencies to tighten up their budgets. At UT, this resulted in a $20 million budget reduction. 

If the state makes any cuts to higher education, Cantu said it would be done under the watchful eye of the state’s business community, which relies on an educated workforce to continue growing.

“The Legislature would be taking the pulse of the business (community) to ascertain what their needs are,” Cantu said.

The cuts would likely reduce the number of staff that run the University, such as academic advisers and administrative officials, rather than professors and their research budgets, Cantu said.

“What our business community relies on pretty heavily is our research because we’re a research campus,” Cantu said. “That’s what makes us unique at UT-Austin. When we prepare a budget, we have to plan for research costs.”