Texas Legislature

As part of their executive alliance campaign platform, President Xavier Rotnofsky and Vice President Rohit Mandalapu promised a Chili’s on campus. While there are no plans for a restaurant, the sit-down food chain is offering a coupon to UT students in honor of the Rotnofsky-Mandalapu victory.
Photo Credit: Marshall Tidrick | Daily Texan Staff

On this week's episode of the Daily Texan NewsCast we discuss the universities plans to expand into East Campus, a bill in the Texas Legislature to limit tuition increases, the Longhorn Band coach leaving, the Blue Bell recall, Mellow Mushroom closing, and Chile's coupons in honor of Rotnofsky and Mandalapu.

On Monday, the bill to repeal in-state tuition for undocumented students was sent to full committee for review with recommendation to pass.  

To repeal this law would be a mistake.  

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick sent the bill to the Senate subcommittee for Border Security instead of Higher Education. This move set up the bill for advancement; two of the three senators on the Border Security subcommittee, Brian Birdwell and Bob Hall, are conservative Republicans elected with the support of the tea party. Of the seven senators on the Higher Education subcommittee, only two are supported by the tea party, and three are Democrats. From the start, the odds seemed stacked against keeping in-state tuition for undocumented students. 

The Texas Legislature’s treatment of this issue is misguided. This is an education issue, not a border security issue. To consider them a threat to national security is insulting, ignorant and foolish. Undocumented students at Texas universities have lived in Texas for at least three years in order to pay in-state tuition, were brought to the U.S. as children and are undocumented through no fault of their own, are good students who earned admission to college and are working hard within the system to make a better life for themselves. These individuals are the undocumented Texans who least deserve yet another disadvantage.  

The opposition to this bill holds the notion that in-state tuition is an undeserved subsidized reward. As tuition costs continue to rise, it’s wrong to think of in-state tuition as a discount. Out-of-state students pay extra. We’ve let in-state tuition be treated in political discourse the same as controversial welfare programs while education budgets have been slashed, which drives up student costs. 

What’s confusing about the move to repeal in-state tuition for undocumented students is that the bill was passed by a Republican-controlled Legislature and was signed into law by former Gov. Rick Perry only 14 years ago. In 2001, the measure was a popular move that empowered undocumented students to contribute more to their communities and the state of Texas. Conservatives recognized that the bill is good for Texas.  

In a speech following the passage of the bill, Perry affirmed that “we must say to every Texas child learning in a Texas classroom, ‘We don’t care where you come from, but where you are going, and we are going to do everything we can to help you get there.’ And that vision must include the children of undocumented workers.” 

As a candidate in the last Republican primary, Perry still expressed his support for the measure. During a debate in Florida, Perry was asked about the issue and defended the legislation that he had signed into law: “If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state … through no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart. We need to be educating these children, because they will become a drag on our society [if we don’t].” Perry covered two sides of the argument: the moral and the practical. The crowd booed. 

Children of unauthorized immigrants are twice as likely to live in poverty. Less than half of undocumented residents finish high school, compared to 92 percent of U.S.-born residents. Less than half of undocumented residents who graduate from high school have attended college. Doubling or tripling tuition could cause attendance and graduation rates to drop even lower.  

They put in the work. They graduated from the same high schools, they are worthy of the universities to which they have been admitted, and they are trying to become productive members of society with a college education. We should especially want these students integrated into our Texas society. They are pulling themselves up by their bootstraps despite even greater obstacles in their way.  

We should be providing opportunities for the impoverished and marginalized sections of our society. Education is part of the solution to our largest problems. Forcing poorer students to pay more than double to earn a degree decreases their likelihood of graduating. College graduates earn more income, pay more taxes and increase the chance that their children will accomplish the same.  

What happened to the compassion? How has the Legislature in the same state controlled by the same party completely flipped its stance in such a short time? It’s rare that I agree with our former governor, but on this issue, he was right.

Burchard is a Plan II and international relations and global studies senior from Houston. Follow Burchard on Twitter @nathburch.

Max Richards is the current UT System student regent. 

Photo Credit: Charlie Pearce | Daily Texan Staff

Most individuals on campus are indubitably familiar with, for example, the SG President, Kori Rady. More astute followers will likely recognize a plethora of other names of active students on campus, which are mentioned time and time again in the pages of this newspaper. One name that is likely not familiar is Max Richards, the student regent for the UT System. Richards, who took office last year, has not made much of an impact in these tumultuous past few months for the board. In fact, a cursory search of his name shows that it has not made its way into the Texan since his nomination. 

One possible reason is the backdoor way that Richards came into office. A 2005 law passed by the Texas Legislature suggests that applicants to student regent positions apply to their respective student government organizations first. Richards — as well as his predecessor, Nash Horne — completely ignored this prerogative and applied directly to the office of then-Governor Rick Perry. Predictably, the move prompted condemnation from pertinent student groups, including this editorial board. 

However, the move has also angered a bipartisan caucus of concerned onlookers in the Legislature. As the Texan has reported, a pair of bills in both respective houses of the legislature seeks to formally forbid student regent applicants from applying directly to the governor’s office. State Rep. J.D. Sheffield, R-Gatesville, and state Sen. Judith Zaffrini, D-Laredo, the respective authors of said bills, noted that they wish to both improve the quality of student regents and return more decision-making power back to the students themselves. 

Granted, Gov. Greg Abbott’s track record on issues pertaining to this University has been significantly better than his predecessor’s, but we still strongly believe, nonetheless, that the state’s chief executive should not usurp one of the few remaining opportunities for students to contribute to the administration of their universities. We support these bills, HB 1256 and SB 42, respectively, and urge the Legislature to pass them swiftly. 

Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

The Texas Legislature is working to redefine the student regent application process, requiring student regents to apply through student government before applying to the governor’s office.

If passed, the bills, SB 42 and HB 1256, will prevent students who apply for the student regent position from applying directly to the governor’s office at their respective institution without input from student government.

In 2014, System student regent Max Richards was appointed to his position by the governor’s office. Richards did not apply through UT’s student government. Richards’ predecessor, Nash Horne, also applied directly to the governor’s office.

After multiple attempts, Richards could not be reached for comment on the bills.

The legislature passed a bill creating the student regent position in 2005. The bill states student governments within the system should nominate students each year for a one-year term at the student regent position. These nominees are then pooled with others across the system and submitted to the governor’s office for consideration. 

According to Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo), who filed SB 42 in November, The University of Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech systems have all had student regents appointed who applied directly to the governor.

“Despite the clarity of the existing statutory language, there have been reports of student regents being appointed after applying not to their student governments, as required by statute, but directly to the governor,” Zaffirini said in an email.

Rep. J.D. Sheffield (R-Gatesville), author of HB 1256, said the 2005 version of the bill intended students to apply through student government.

Sheffield said he filed the bill last week because he thinks student regents who apply through student government will be more beneficial to their university system.

“The contribution is dependent upon the regent themselves,” Sheffield said in an email.  “Thus, when students are well-qualified and have followed the intended process at the university level, it seems to me that they would be more likely to positively contribute to the mission of their respective university.”

Cameron Crane, biology senior and 2014 finalist for the student regent position, said he thinks the SG phasing process limits the student regent application pool. 

Crane did not make it through the first round of the University search, but was a finalist when he applied directly to the governor’s office. Crane said that if an applicant does not know the SG members on the selection committee, they might be at a disadvantage against those who do.

“They didn’t know me, so I think that’s why I wasn’t selected, not so much based on my resume and credentials,” said Crane, who is now a natural science representative for SG. “I feel like it’s important to open it up to people and allow everyone who wants to apply directly to [do so].”

SG President Kori Rady said it is important for student regent applicants to gain SG approval because he thinks it adds student input to the student regent selection process.

“I think it’s definitely a good thing to go through the student government process and that it furthers your understanding of what students are interested in,” Rady said.

Photo Credit: Connor Murphy | Daily Texan Staff

If you’ve watched daytime basic cable, you’ve probably seen their commercials. With bright colors and gimmicky sound effects, they’re hard to miss, offering you “$2,000, $3,000, even $5,000 for your auto title!” The flashy marketing behind auto title and payday loans hints at their true target demographic — low-income consumers desperate for money to finish out the month. While some cities in Texas have set limits on the terms of these loans, there is no statewide legislation addressing them, leaving a broad gap for consumers to fall into. It’s time the Texas Legislature addressed the payday and auto title loan industries so consumers won’t have to resort to financial products that are designed to draw them into debt.

Maybe car title and payday loans aren’t a concept you’re familiar with, which is probably for the best. They’re short-term loans from a lender that specializes in these kind of small loans. The interest rates on these loans can be exorbitantly high, forcing consumers to roll over loans from one month to pay off the last, creating a cycle of debt. If consumers can’t pay off a title loan, the lender will collect the car as collateral. For payday lenders some other asset, like a bank account, usually stands behind the loan. These features are in some ways necessary for the industry to continue to operate — high default rates and small loan amounts mean that the lender might need interest rate spreads to ensure a continuous cashflow.

These features of the loan are problematic because the consumers who take them out can often least afford it. According to a 2013 paper by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the median annual income of a payday loan borrower is $22,476, and the median loan size was only $350. The paper noted that consumers were more frequently unemployed or on public assistance than the average population, which is to say these loans are typically for small amounts and taken out by people trying to make ends meet during that tough stretch before the next payday. 

This is all completely understandable and entirely fair — after all, a free-functioning credit market is one of capitalism’s primary underpinnings. The trouble is with these loans’ egregiously high interest rates, which average 339 percent annually on a 14-day loan, according to that CFPB paper. Ideally the loan would be paid back before the interest really started to accrue, but because of the population to which these products are marketed, the lenders are perfectly aware that won’t always be the case. The lenders play an important role in supplying high-risk individuals with short-term capital, but people driven to a 400 percent annual percentage rate loan by desperation will necessarily lose out in this business model.

These lenders have faced a flurry of criticism by consumer advocates for years now, but they have enough powerful friends that they are still relatively unencumbered by state legislation. Auto title and payday lenders wield significant political clout, with major auto title lender Rod Aycox, his family members and his business giving around $1 million to Texas legislators since 2004, according to a recent post by the San Antonio Current. The list of recepients of campaign funds from auto title and payday lenders is long, including powerful players on both sides of the statehouse. These lenders and allied policy groups defend their loan practices, saying that they’re only responding to a demand for credit from risky individuals in a realistic way.  Rob Norcross, a spokesman for the Consumer Service Alliance of Texas, an industry group, told the New York Times last year that “a lot of the criticism of the industry is because of the numbers. Folks really don’t understand how you arrive at the numbers.” Additionally advocacy groups like the Texas Public Policy Foundation have come out in the past, defending the practice as responding to consumer demand.

The groups and businesses that advocate for payday and auto title lending have a point. Short-term credit is a tool, like a mortgage or a small business loan, that ideally will serve a constructive purpose for the borrower. Taking short-term loans away from consumers won’t solve their woes, but only force them into worse options like finding another lender somewhere else or bouncing checks. An appropriate legislative response won’t close these kinds of businesses, but put into place common-sense reforms to protect consumers who might otherwise be biting off more than they can chew. When it comes to money, there will always be good times and bad times, and the credit instruments ordinary Americans use to get by shouldn’t ensure that they never see those good times again.

Matula is a finance senior from Austin. Follow Matula on Twitter @chucketlist.

Straus' committee picks show his continued pragmatism

The Texas Legislature is an ironic place. Historically, U.S. governments have been set up that are composed of a pragmatic upper house (Senate) and a radical lower house (House of Representatives).  

In Texas, the opposite is true. Nowhere has that become clearer than in the way the leaders of the two respective chambers — Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in the Senate and Speaker Joe Straus in the House — have selected the composition and heads of pertinent committees, the lifeblood of legislatures in the modern era. 

Patrick, a bombastic right-wing activist elected last year, quickly made good on his promise to slash the number of committees and boot most all of the Democratic chairs from power. Straus, on the other hand, elected by the House's members in bipartisan fashion, largely retained the pervasiveness of Democratic influence in the lower house. Furthermore, for those Republicans selected to lead committees, many moderates received the most plum assignments

State Representative John Zerwas, R-Richmond, for example, was chosen to lead the House Higher Education Committee. As most media sources quickly noted, Zerwas has recently been a supporter of the Texas Dream Act, which grants in-state tuition at state universities such as this one to undocumented immigrants. State Representative John Otto, R-Dayton, meanwhile, was selected as the new chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which is tasked with the enviable position of writing the state's budget. In a recent analysis by Rice University, Otto was noted as the fifth most liberal Republican in the legislature while Zerwas was rated the third . 

Roughly a third of committees will be headed by Democrats, mirroring the proportion of the House itself occupied by the minority party. Most of these committees are rather insignificant, but others are invaluable. The transportation committee will be chaired by state Representative Joe Pickett, D-El Paso. State Representative Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, the second-longest serving member of the legislature, will continue at the helm of Local & Consent Calendars, one of the most powerful committees under the dome. 

The most zealous conservatives, specifically the ones who voted against Straus last month for speaker, were unsurprisingly punished. Special Purposes Districts Committee immediately comes to mind. 

In continuing his pragmatic and bipartisan approach to House administration, Straus has sent a message back to Patrick: The House will continue being a bastion of real government solutions to problems and not just a breeding ground for right-wing pipe dreams, no matter what the Senate descends into.  

Horwitz is the Senior Associate Editor.

In this week's Editorial Podcast, Senior Associate Editor Noah M. Horwitz discusses the first whirlwind week at the Texas Legislature, as well as other issues.

Photo Credit: Stephanie Tacy | Daily Texan Staff

The Texas Legislature opens its 84th 140-day session Tuesday at noon. Here are a few bills related to higher education that, if passed, could affect university students statewide.

SB No. 22:

Introduced by Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo), Senate Bill Number 22 looks at outcome-based funding, a method of distributing funds by the higher education coordinating board based on the number of undergraduate degrees awarded.

In her bill, Zaffirini proposes that for each state fiscal period of two years, public universities will receive a percentage of funds based on metric points. These points are calculated by the institutions based on the number of undergraduate degrees awarded and the percent of degree completion.

SB No. 24:

Senate Bill Number 24, which Zaffirini also introduced, requires members of a university’s governing board, such as the UT System Board of Regents, to attend a training program and take an online orientation course during their first year of membership.

While board members are already trained in areas such as budgeting, policy development and governance upon appointment, the new definition adds information on ethics and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

If passed, the bill mandates board members appointed on or after Sept. 1, 2015 complete this training before voting on budgetary or personnel matters related to the system.

SB No. 233:

Senate Bill Number 233, which Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown) introduced, would aim to regulate University tuition increases, if passed, by capping the inflation rate for student tuition from year-to-year.

The bill says university tuition for a student in the same financial, academic and residential situations as in previous years could not be increased beyond a set inflation rate. In addition, tuition could not be adjusted more than once per academic year.

For the 2015 legislative session, the UT System is seeking funding from the Texas Legislature for large infrastructure projects at each of its educational institutions through tuition revenue bonds.

In a July meeting, the Board of Regents approved the System’s plan to request $1.9 billion in tuition revenue bonds, also known as TRBs, from state lawmakers. UT-Austin’s share in the proposal includes two building renovation projects: $100 million for Welch Hall and $105 million for the McCombs School of Business. 

If authorized, the proposed TRBs will pledge a revenue stream serviced by income from tuition charges levied against students with the expectation that the state will later reimburse the expenditures.

Barry McBee, System vice chancellor and chief governmental relations officer, said the lack of TRBs has contributed to overcrowding in classrooms and more limited access to laboratories at many of Texas’ public universities. While the System has used funding alternatives, such as the state’s Permanent University Fund and philanthropic contributions, to keep some projects afloat, they are not enough to meet all the needs of higher education institutions, according to McBee.

“A good example in Austin would be the engineering building; that was a TRB request last time,” McBee said. “It was the highest priority for UT-Austin, and it was obviously not funded, but we were able to put together funding for the project to proceed. That probably means that some other priority project on the campus had to be delayed.” 

The legislature historically passed new TRB legislation every other session, but lawmakers have not authorized new TRBs since a third-called session in 2006. Up until 2013, TRBs were consistently passed over because of budget concerns, according to McBee.

“Higher education collectively had an expectation in 2009 that we would return to what we call a TRB session,” McBee said. “But it was really something the state just could not afford at that time and it was sort of cut off again in 2011.”

In 2013, the House of Representatives and Senate proposed different versions of TRB legislation but, in the last days of the session, failed to pass a bill. McBee said 2015 is the next opportunity to negotiate with legislators over the need for state support for construction.

State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, filed Senate Bill 150, a $2.86 billion proposal that would fund 64 construction and renovation projects at higher education institutions across the state with cash either from direct appropriation or from the Rainy Day Fund, a savings fund that allows the state to set aside surpluses in revenue for use in times of unexpected revenue shortfall.

Another construction financing bill, filed by State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, proposes roughly $5 billion for infrastructure projects, according to Seliger. 

“If we’re going to take money from the Rainy Day Fund, which I think is a legitimate way to do it, a $2.85 billion dollar subtraction is far more feasible than something over $5 billion,” Seliger said.

Sean Griffin, Zaffirini’s chief of staff, said Zaffirini wanted to take a broader approach with her bill, potentially granting institutions more funding. The bill’s cost will likely change to reflect the legislature’s budget and priorities. 

“Our bill is different because we want to discuss it with the entire legislature; it’s an open discussion of where we should put our resources,” Griffin said.

Seliger said he believes his bill, if passed, will help universities make significant progress in terms of infrastructure without piling on excess debt. 

“I’m not a big believer in debt,” Seliger said. “I think it appropriates forward to the tune of $200-250 million dollars every biennium for a long time, and, if you have the cash for one-time projects to fund and then not deal with again, I think that’s a good opportunity.” 

University spokesman Gary Susswein said TRBs are an important factor in funding new building construction as well as keeping tuition stable.

“We used these bonds to build the Seay Building in the late 1990s and the Norman Hackerman Building in the late 2000s,” Susswein said. “These facilities have ensured that our students and faculty have access to state-of-the-art lab space and classrooms.”

According to Susswein, the failure to pass TRB legislation in recent years has made it more difficult for the University to maintain state-of-the-art facilities. 

“Our goal of becoming the top public research institution in the nation is far more difficult to achieve without access to adequate funding, including tuition revenue bonds,” Susswein said.

McBee said he is cautiously optimistic that lawmakers will approve TRB legislation in the upcoming session.

“We recognize legislators have to make difficult decisions about funding Medicaid and roads, and public education, and higher education,” McBee said. “We would hope that the collective voice of higher education pointing out our needs will be persuasive to the legislature.”

Editor’s Note: Early voting for the Nov. 4 election begins Oct. 20 and ends Oct. 31.

The lieutenant governor of Texas has often been hailed as the most powerful official in the Texas Legislature. With nearly despotic powers over the Texas Senate, the lieutenant governor controls the agendas, the composition of committees and the general demeanor of the chamber. These duties, however, are not guaranteed by the state constitution; instead, they only occur with the consent of the state senators themselves. If so organized, a majority of 16 could vote at the beginning of a session to strip the lieutenant governor of all power beyond breaking ties if so inclined. Thus, with the incumbent lieutenant governor David Dewhurst being replaced after a dozen years in office, it is important to find a replacement willing to get along with other senators and continue the delicate agreement.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, the Republican candidate for the post, is not that person. A demagogue willing to take on extreme positions, he prioritizes divisive social issues over real solutions to solve the complex problems that Texas currently faces. Instead of coming up with a plan to make our roads and highways the envy of the world once more, Patrick merely quips in broad platitudes about “securing the border,” using dangerous scare tactics, such as equating undocumented immigrants with disease-carrying invaders. On Oct. 8, he claimed that ISIS was crossing the border with Mexico en masse. Such an assertion, of course, is patently absurd. Last session, when the Legislature was debating how best to restore austerity cuts to education earlier inflicted, Patrick talked out of both sides of his mouth too often to keep track. Despite campaigning for the restoration in front of cameras, he ultimately voted against the budget in order to save his reputation among arch-conservatives. An advocate of school choice, Patrick believes that funding public schools is futile because of their underperformance. Still, he continues to claim that he was a leading advocate for the restoration, a charge that earned him a “pants on fire” rating from Politifact.

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio and the Democratic candidate, is the polar opposite. Though she can also be fiery and partisan in front of television cameras, she has a proven track record of working behind-the-scenes with legislators of both parties to implement common-sense goals. Be it education, transportation or budget affairs, Van de Putte is not merely content submitting a sound bite; rather, she wants to actually do what is right.

Further, while the phrase “reaching across the aisle” is ubiquitous in clichés of politics, no such aisle exists in the Texas Senate. The senators simply all sit together. The seating is representative of a larger principle of nonpartisanship in the body, best enforced by a rule compelling legislation to stay off the floor unless two-thirds of lawmakers assent to its consideration. The rule, which dates back to the days when Democrats controlled all 31 senate seats, is designed to foster consensus, not facilitate gridlock. Patrick wants to do away with the rule, or lower the threshold to 60 percent, which is conspicuously just below the portion of the chamber that Republicans control; Van de Putte wants to retain the threshold. Without the rule, the Texas Senate will descend into partisan bickering, a cacophony indistinguishable from the mess in Washington.  

At its core, that is what this race is about. Van de Putte represents the Texas values of old. Patrick, on the other hand, is just more of the same grandstanding ever-present in the Capitol and sadly rearing its ugly head more and more often in Texas. Let’s keep the state strong and restore it to its earlier successes. Vote for Van de Putte.