House and Senate negotiators in Austin are now trying to hammer out a final deal on the financing of $3 billion worth of construction projects at colleges and universities all over Texas.
There is broad agreement that funding new classroom space is the right thing to do. On a vote of 26 to 5, the Texas Senate passed a bill authorizing the spending aimed at relieving overcrowded campuses. The Texas House also overwhelmingly passed the legislation. But, just as in past legislative sessions, the devil’s in the details when it comes to this issue.
As of right now, about $73 million separates the two plans. That’s why a conference committee has been appointed to craft a deal that will then be presented to both the House and Senate before it can be sent to Gov. Greg Abbott for his signature.
The chairman of the Senate’s Higher Education Committee, Sen. Kel Seliger, has said all along that he believes this will be the legislative session in which the challenge is finally addressed. “There are a few dollar issues, and we will resolve them," Seliger said of the conference committee’s work. "It's worth talking about because it's taxpayers' money," said the Amarillo Republican.
Seliger and Rep. John Zerwas, the House’s top negotiator on the issue, are said to have a very good working relationship. That’s one key reason that many observers of the Capitol believe a deal can be achieved this time around.
Two years ago, there was similarly broad agreement in the legislature about the need to fund college construction projects. But, those talks fell apart right at the end of the legislative session when the details could not be worked out.
That was frustrating for college administrators and others hoping the state would step up and fund this critical infrastructure. Texas lawmakers have not approved campus construction funding of anything even close to this scale since 2006 when $1.9 billion was appropriated.
Under the plan on the table, the state would spend about $250 million over the next two years to service the debt on bonds, which are backed by tuition and fees. By law, the money can only be spent on academic buildings. Schools would be required to repay the interest and principal on the bonds using tuition revenue. Money will be appropriated from general revenue to repay the debt.
“In a growing state with a priority for an educated workforce, the need for classroom, lab and other academic space is clear,” Seliger said.
Construction Citizen will keep track of whether the final deal is reached.
The campus projects that would be funded under the proposals can be here.