UT System prepares for 2019 legislative session, honors McRaven

Maria Mendez

As Texas’ 86th legislative session approaches, the UT System emphasized the importance of state funding and the upcoming elections during Tuesday’s Board of Regents meeting.

UT System university presidents and Barry McBee, the vice chancellor and chief governmental relations officer, outlined political priorities for the next legislative session, which begins in January 2019.

McBee reviewed the state’s budget, which will determine how much state funding lawmakers allocate to UT and public higher education institutions. State leaders have expressed “cautious optimism” about the budget, but McBee said legislators will have to balance any such funding with past expenses on health care and new bills from Hurricane Harvey recovery. 

“When (lawmakers) left town during the end of the last legislative session, they left $100 million in the bank in terms of general revenue,” McBee said. “That compares to $900 million that was available at the end of the preceding session … so the coffers are not full.”

These budget constraints may mean less state funding for Texas universities and UT-Austin, which received 12 percent of its budget from state funding for the current academic year. 

UT-Dallas President Richard Benson said he is also concerned about the state’s formula funding, which factors in student enrollment to decide how much money to give universities.

“Because of our (university’s) growth, we were expecting about $7 million more, but instead were cut (funding),” Benson said. “Making sure the formula (funding) is stable is awfully important to us.”

UT-Austin President Gregory Fenves said he is grateful for the Legislature’s support but hopes the state will support UT’s low- and middle-income students through TEXAS Grants.

“Continuing to fully fund TEXAS grants … is very important because that most directly impacts the students,” Fenves said. “This is the most significant statewide financial aid program. Many of our students depend on these grants.”

McBee said another concern in the next session will be “protecting” UT’s special access to the state’s Permanent University Fund, which only funds the UT and A&M Systems, McBee said.

As both the UT System and the Texas legislature brace for leadership changes in the fall, McBee said good relationships between the chancellor and elected lawmakers will be crucial to the securing support for UT institutions.

Out of all the state elections this year, McBee said the selection of the new Speaker of the House of Representatives, who assigns representatives to the state’s higher education committee, will be the most important for the UT System.

“I think the most important election in Texas, particularly from the perspective of higher education, is what happens in January when the 150 members of the House come back and elect the new speaker to succeed Joe Straus,” McBee said.

With William McRaven leaving the chancellor’s office by the end of this month, the Board of Regents also presented him with a certificate during its last in-person meeting on Tuesday. 

Last Friday, McRaven and his wife were surprised with a $500,000 endowment in their name for future chancellors to use for the System. Board Chairman Sara Martinez Tucker said it grew to $900,000 with new donations by the end of the night.

“You will forever be linked to the UT System,” Tucker said.

McRaven also thanked the Board for its support.

“It has been the honor of my lifetime to be your chancellor,” McRaven said.