Judith Zaffirini

Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

In a continued effort to prioritize higher education in this year’s legislative session, a group of six legislators are working to provide a tax exemption on certain textbooks. 

Rep. Mary González (D-El Paso), Rep. Ana Hernandez (D-Houston), Rep. Eddie Lucio III (D-Brownsville), Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown), Rep. Terry Canales (D-Edinburg) and Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo), individually filed bills that would offer part-time or full-time students at accredited public or private universities a tax exemption on textbooks each semester. 

If passed, each of the bills would set a time period during which students could purchase textbooks tax-free. 

“As we discuss curving tuition cost and financial aid opportunities, it was important for us to look at the spiking cost in textbook costs that students have to purchase each year,” Hernandez said.  

Canales, Hernandez and Schwertner’s bills set aside a week-long exemption period at the start of each semester. Zaffirini’s bill set aside 10 days, Lucio’s set aside one month and González’s set no time limit on the tax exemption.

Michael Kiely, course materials director at University Co-op, said the first week of the semester is typically the busiest for textbook sales and said the store would support sales tax exemptions.

“I’m not entirely sure what the impact of a sales tax exemption would have on textbook sales, but I can’t help but think it would be a positive thing for the consumer,” Kiely said in an email to The Daily Texan. “This is an initiative that would help lower the cost of course materials for students at UT, and the Co-op would be in favor of that.”

Canales said he hopes the bill will help more students afford day-to-day expenses while attending college. 

“Education is the greatest equalizer, so, essentially, what these bills do is they make education more affordable,” Canales said.

Schwertner said passing a textbook tax exemption bill is “the least we can do” to aid students who are struggling financially.

“The fact is, the cost of higher education is rising faster than Texas families can … keep up,” Schwertner said. “The price of tuition, fees and textbooks have all risen dramatically over the last decade, and, collectively, they are turning the dream of a college education into a nightmare for more and more Texas students.”

Since 1999, similar bills have been filed in the State House of Representatives and Senate but failed to pass, with the last bill filed in the 83rd legislative session. Zaffirini said the bill failed because of concerns over revenue loss.

Zaffirini said her most recent bill will only apply to students eligible for financial aid — a factor she thinks will lessen the bill’s financial impact on the state and increase its chances of passing. 

“In the past, we have heard opposition from certain municipalities that rely on sales tax revenue from textbook sales,” Zaffirini said. “We are hopeful that they will be more amenable to this session’s revised legislation.”

Hernandez said she thinks lowering the cost of higher education is an opportunity for Republican and Democrat lawmakers to work together.

“There are so many issues we can work on in a bipartisan fashion,” Hernandez said. “I think this is one of them. We are interested in helping our college students not graduate with so much debt and making education more accessible to everyone.”

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.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini proposed a bill in November that, if enacted, would update and clarify the legal definition and repercussions of hazing. 

Senate Bill 33 amends Texas’ hazing statute, created in 1995 and followed by universities statewide. Zaffirini filed similar legislation in 2007 and 2009. This version, which would take effect on Sept. 1, 2015, is a refile of the 2009 version, Zaffirini said in an email.

The amended bill includes a narrower definition of immunity from prosecution and adds that coercing a student to drink alcohol or creating “an environment in which the student reasonably feels coerced” is part of the definition of hazing, among other amendments that specify terms and procedures.

Zaffirini included more specific descriptions of alcohol-related hazing and cases of immunity in SB 33 because she felt the state’s current hazing statute was inadequate.

“[T]he statute does not address adequately the dangers of alcohol-related hazing,” Zaffirini said in an email. “[T]he immunity provisions for those reporting hazing are unclear and arguably create the perverse possibility that students can avoid liability by reporting their own acts of hazing.”

The Office of the Dean of Students declined to comment on the proposed bill. 

“Once a [hazing] case has been filed, I know the Dean of Students takes it very seriously,” Interfraternity Council President Edwin Qian said. “As for the details of the investigation process or the mutual agreements after that, it’s determined by the Dean of Students and the organization itself.”

Zaffirini said she filed the bill because hazing is a serious issue in Texas and the rest of the country.

“A study by the Children’s National Medical Center reported that, in the last 57 years, English-language newspapers reported more than 250 cases of death linked to bullying or hazing — at least 55 of which were associated specifically with hazing,” Zaffirini said. “What’s more, the problem has shown no signs of abating. A recent Bloomberg article reported that ‘more than 60 people [nationally] have died in fraternity-related events since 2005, many involving alcohol abuse and hazing.’”

Qian said updating the bill is important because, like with any law, people find loopholes that must be addressed. He said that publicizing this information to student organizations, Greek and non-Greek, is necessary to prevent hazing on campus. 

“It’s really to get the message out and be proactive from the law enforcement side — letting organizations know what is okay and what is not,” Qian said. “If you want people to follow the rules, you have to tell them about the rules and help them understand the rules.” 

In the proposed amendments, an individual who reports his or her own hazing will have immunity from prosecution. Zaffirini said maintaining discussion and state regulation on hazing is essential to keeping students on college campuses safe.

“The safety of students on campus must be our top priority,” Zaffirini said. “Efforts to combat hazing and to protect those who come forward to report hazing would not only help keep students safe but also enhance the educational experience of students statewide.”

Qian said the amended immunity clause of the bill will keep the Greek system and other organizations accountable.

“Some people might be afraid to be the whistle blower, so having that in there is really going to help people understand why it is important to report these actions and encouraging people in a way to help this campus become a hazing-free campus,” Qian said.

Photo Credit: Amy Zhang | Daily Texan Staff

When Greg Abbott laid out his higher education plan in September, he said affordability would be key. With Abbott now set to become governor in January, Barry McBee, UT System vice chancellor and chief governmental relations officer, said he thinks Abbott will work toward that goal.

“Affordability is going to be on the mind of any Texas governor,” McBee said. “My sense is that he sees affordability as ensuring students can move through college and attain a high quality education in as quick a time as possible.”

According to State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, Abbott will need to balance affordability and efficiency with providing high-quality education in his new term.

“I believe that Governor-elect Abbott will prioritize research, that he understands the value and is committed to excellence,” Zaffirini said. “He shares the enthusiasm about issues like affordability and accessibility and cost efficiency and productivity. We all support all of those concepts but not at the expense of excellence, and I hope Abbott shares that perspective.”

In his higher education plan, Abbott, a UT alumnus, focused on using online courses and accepting community college credits at four-year institutions as a means to make college more accessible. Zaffirini, who serves on the Senate Committee on Higher Education, said she can see the value of online courses, but that they shouldn’t take the place of person-to-person education.

“I believe that online courses are important and valuable, but we need more than that,” Zaffirini said. “Sometimes the options provided by online courses aren’t good enough. I believe it has its place, but it is not a cure-all, and, on its own, it is certainly not satisfactory to meet standards of excellence.”

Victor Sáenz, education administration associate professor, said Abbott seems to be following in his predecessor’s steps in regard to higher education.

“I think that he is definitely … on the surface pursuing similar policy ideas, [with] more of a move toward a performance-based budget and funding in higher education,” Sáenz said.

One of Abbott’s early responsibilities as governor will be appointing three new members to the UT System Board of Regents. Zaffirini said those decisions play a huge part in shaping higher education in Texas.

“The appointments are certainly some of the most important,” Zaffirini said. “Higher education is so important to the future of our state. It defines excellence. It defines our future goals.”

Citing regents Steve Hicks and Robert Stillwell, Zaffirini also said, if Abbott appoints regents of the same caliber as some of Gov. Rick Perry’s appointees higher education will benefit. She said she does hope to see a change in the board’s methods of operation.

“The people typically appointed are passionate about their alma maters, and they should be,” Zaffirini said. “You have people enthusiastic about serving, and what’s important is that every appointee understands the standards of governance.”

McBee said he looks forward to working with the governor-elect.

“We were encouraged by a number of elements of Governor-elect Abbott’s plan,” McBee said. “First, the desire to elevate research institutions like UT-Austin as the flagship for the UT system and for emerging UT institutions. We look forward to working for him in that regard.”

UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa stepped down from his position at a press conference Monday morning. Cigarroa will become the head of pediatric transplant surgery at the UT Health Science Center-San Antonio once his successor is named. 

Photo Credit: Shelby Tauber | Daily Texan Staff

At a press conference Monday morning, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa announced he will be stepping down as chancellor because he feels he has completed significant work on the goals he originally set for himself in the role. 

Cigarroa, who will become the head of pediatric transplant surgery at the UT Health Science Center-San Antonio once his successor is named, said he came to his realization in December.

“I realized I had accomplished every goal that I set out to do,” Cigarroa said. “I’m at a point in my professional career where I need to take a look at the next steps. The type of academic I am is really a surgeon, [and I realized] that, if I didn’t go back to surgery, I think that, long-term, I would have regretted it.”

Cigarroa maintained his decision had nothing to do with recent tensions between President William Powers Jr. and members of the UT System Board of Regents, and said he is proud of the work he has done to advance UT-Austin.

“As it relates to President Powers, this decision is completely separate from that,” Cigarroa said. “I will continue to do my work as chancellor every day until my last day, as I’ve always done, based on facts and performance. I support President Powers, and I will continue to evaluate all presidents every day.”

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said she believes Cigarroa’s resignation stems from some regents’ recent behavior. Zaffirini, who served as chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee for six years, still sits on the committee and is also co-vice chair of the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency.

“Although I am confident that he will deny any disharmony, I am equally confident that [Cigarroa’s] decision was influenced by the continued negative circumstances at hand,” Zaffirini said in a statement. “His action personifies the harmful repercussions of the current attack on those who pursue excellence, protect the privacy of students and strive for true transparency for all.”

Zaffirini said members of the board need to express their “strong support” of Powers as they look for a new chancellor.

“[Cigarroa] has endured unmitigated stress from the rogue regents who want UT President Bill Powers fired,” Zaffirini said. “Those who were unhappy with his recommendation to continue the heavily supported employment of President Powers reportedly turned their powerful weapons on him.”

Board chairman Paul Foster said he did not believe “perceived tensions” between Powers and the regents would impede the search process for Cigarroa’s successor in any way. Foster said he anticipated the search process would take between four and six months.

“This is a tough day for me because it’s difficult to imagine trying to replace Francisco Cigarroa,” Foster said. “Indeed, in my opinion, he can’t be replaced. People with his varied and impressive resume don’t come along every day. … He found common ground where others couldn’t.”

In a statement, Powers said he appreciated Cigarroa’s leadership over the course of the past five years and noted his work in helping establish a new medical school for the University.

“We are in a better place in Texas because of his leadership,” Powers said. “I will always remember and appreciate his support in a variety of areas, most of all, establishing a medical school at UT-Austin. Likewise, the entire state will always remember and benefit from the new University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, which will soon be a reality because of [Cigarroa].”

During Cigarroa’s tenure as chancellor, the Texas Legislature approved the establishment of a new medical school in the Rio Grande Valley in addition to the new University, which will be eligible for funding from the Permanent University Fund. 

Cigarroa said after he steps down in his role, he will serve the Board of Regents as a special adviser on the development and implementation of both institutions.

“We have, no doubt, planted a giant flag in South Texas,” Cigarroa said. 

Photo Credit: Jonathan Garza | Daily Texan Staff

The Moody College of Communications’ school of journalism celebrated its 100th Anniversary at a ceremony Monday, in which speakers addressed the school’s successes over the last century, while also discussing recent developments including the tense relationship between UT President William Powers Jr. and the UT System Board of Regents.

Powers praised the school of journalism’s faculty and said the school’s diversity and vitality are due mainly to the leadership of its professors. 

“In the future, we will maintain a … journalism education [that emphasizes] not only the ‘how’, but also the ‘why’ and the ethics and the way of going about getting the truth,” Powers said. 

At the event, Powers praised State Senator Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, whom he referred to as “our BFF.” Zaffirini, who received her master’s degree from the college in 1970, sits on the Senate Higher Education Committee and has been vocal about her frustrations with the conduct of current members of the UT System Board of Regents.

In her speech, Zaffirini said Powers has had a positive impact on the University and on the journalism school in particular, but said she was aware others did not share that view.

“I wish all the members of the Board of Regents felt the same,” Zaffirini said.

Powers and several regents, including Wallace Hall, who is currently under investigation for overstepping his bounds as a regent, have had a tense relationship over the course of the last several years. At a Dec. 12 meeting of the board, Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa recommended Powers remain in his position but described relations between Powers and the board as “strained.”

Zaffirini also presented an official proclamation from the Texas State Senate, which salutes the school of journalism with “an expression of esteem.”

Moody College dean Roderick P. Hart said he places significant importance on the school of journalism’s duty to educate the next generation of “ambassadors of the truth.”

“A journalist’s job is providing the truth, and telling the truth, and telling it right, and digging deeper, and asking unpleasant questions and pushing a little bit harder so that the rest of us can all profit from an enlightened democracy,” Hart said.

Journalism sophomore Dylan Samuel also said that he is proud of what the school of journalism has accomplished within the past hundred years.

“We have some great guys, [such as] Walter Cronkite,” Samuel said. “It also doesn’t hurt that the school is bringing us into the digital age with a focus on social media.”

The proposed Engineering Education and Research Center would feature collaborative spaces for students and faculty to work in. 

Photo Credit: UT System | Daily Texan Staff

A new engineering building, which would have included new research laboratories, collaboration space and centralized student services, did not receive a tuition revenue bond critical to its construction in the latest legislative session.

“The current engineering buildings are old and worn down,” petroleum engineering sophomore Niloy Chakravarty said.

The University has been planning for the Engineering Education and Research Center for three years and will continue to do so, new Provost and former engineering Dean Gregory Fenves said in a statement to the Texan. Fenves said the University will be looking for other sources of funding that aren’t verified yet.

In November 2012, State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, filed the tuition revenue bond bill as the first bill of the 83rd legislative session. Though the bill was passed in the Senate, the House did not create a conference committee. Ultimately, the legislature was short on time while considering the bill because they couldn’t work on it until the appropriations bills passed only a couple of months before the regular session ended.

Zaffirini said that currently, construction costs and interest rates are low because the economy is improving.

“[It would have been] perfect timing to pass because it is such an economic power tool,” Zaffirini said.

The bill did not pass in the regular state legislative session, which ended in turmoil as Republicans and Democrats faced off over several bills involving abortion and transportation. Although the Legislature then held three special sessions, the bond was not on the agendas.

“We could’ve worked out a compromise,” Zaffirini said. “It was doable, but the clock ran out.”

The last tuition revenue bond bill to be passed was in the 2005 session. Zaffirini said the informal agreement was that every four years the Legislature would pass a tuition revenue bond bill, so one should have been passed in 2009.

The $310 million project’s funds are divided into four categories, according to the project’s website. $105 million would come from Permanent University Funds, $105 million would come from philanthropy, $5 million would come from the University and the remaining $95 million would have come from the tuition revenue bond.

A tuition revenue bond finances construction through the selling of a bond to the University, but the state then reimburses the school.

“We appreciate the support this critical project has received from the UT System Board of Regents and members of the Texas Legislature,” Fenves said in his statement. “We are continuing to work on plans to complete funding for the building.”

Zaffirini said the engineering research center is important to the University because it will enhance learning, teaching and research and help recruit and retain students and faculty.

“This project is vital for the Cockrell School of Engineering to remain top-tier, attract the best students and faculty and help drive the innovation economy in Texas,” Fenves said in his statement.

Zaffirini said she plans to reintroduce the bill at the next session in January 2015.

Sixty construction projects across Texas, including UT’s planned $310 million Cockrell Engineering Education Research Center, could be delayed for years if a funding issue is not resolved during the ongoing special legislative session. 

UT expected to receive $95 million from the state for its engineering research center before the two proposals for billions of dollars in tuition revenue bonds sank in a bureaucratic stalemate during the final days of the 83rd regular legislative session. Construction for the engineering research center was scheduled to begin this summer and the center is expected to be completed by late 2015. However, UT officials have said completion could be delayed without state money. 

The legislation had widespread support during the regular session, and three legislators have filed proposals to fund campus construction projects in the special session. Even though UT’s Cockrell School of Engineering is one of the top 10 engineering schools in the U.S., its building is smaller compared to those of peer institutions. Officials say UT needs the additional space to recruit and retain the best staff and students in the nation. 

Although lawmakers have already filed bills to revive the issue in the special session, they are only allowed to vote on issues Gov. Rick Perry chooses. Currently, Perry only has political redistricting on the agenda, but said he will consider adding tuition revenue bonds as an issue if he feels lawmakers can work together on the legislation. Tuition revenue bonds are tuition funds awarded by the UT System for special projects. UT is later reimbursed by the state. 

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, authored the Senate’s original tuition bond proposal and said she is confident the two chambers would work together if afforded the opportunity. 

“There is no doubt in my mind,” Zaffirini said. “There’s exceedingly widespread support for this issue. It’s a priority for many people.”

Peer engineering programs, including Georgia Institute of Technology and the Massachussetts Institute of Technology, across the country have had from 400,000 to more than 1 million square feet added to their facilities in the past eight years to accommodate new growth and development, according to the Cockrell School of Engineering’s website. UT has only added 144,000 square feet in the past 25 years for engineering. 

The stalemate began with Senate Bill 16, which was approved by the Senate with $2.4 billion in bonds. The bill was then taken to the House, where legislators increased the bond amount to $2.7 billion. The Senate refused to accept the changes, the House refused to appoint a committee to debate the issue and the bill died hours before the end of the session.

The UT System Board of Regents has collected some of the money needed to complete the $310 million project by using $105 million from the Permanent University Fund and $5 million from UT-Austin. The remaining cost was to be covered by $95 million in bonds from the state and another $105 million in donations from alumni. 

Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, and Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, both filed proposals during the special session that would fund projects using tuition revenue bonds. Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, also introduced a separate proposal to solely fund the remaining $95 million needed to complete the UT’s engineering research center. 

Zaffirini said buildings like the engineering research center are critical at a time when enrollment numbers are surging and the state continues to rely on flagship research institutions to attract the best students and staff in the nation.

“The legislature expects UT to strive for excellence,” Zaffirini said. “UT needs to recruit and retain the best. In order to do that, they need state of the art facilities.”

Follow Alberto Long on Twitter @albertolong.

Top five quotes from Monday's UT regent grilling

Declarations of love and conspiracy theories were common at Monday’s Senate Nominations Committee hearing.

Senators grilled UT System regent nominees Ernest Aliseda, Jeffrey Hildebrand and current UT Regent Paul Foster for four hours Monday, which may be the longest time spent interviewing candidates this session.

The hot topic was the board’s relationship with UT-Austin President William Powers Jr. and whether there were any plans to force him out of office. Below are the Texan’s picks for the top five quotes from the hearing. 

1. Senator Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, expresses her support for Powers.

“Do you understand that Bill Powers, the president of UT-Austin, is not only respected and admired, but I would dare say loved by members of legislature?” she asked the nominees.

2. Senator Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, does not want to hear about the conflict between the UT System Board of Regents and Powers any longer.

“I’ve heard more about the University of Texas System than I have ever wanted to in my life this legislative session. No, Senator Zaffirini, actually that’s not because I’m an Aggie.”

3. UT Regent Paul Foster on tenure for university professors.

“I think tenure is important but I think it could stand to be reexamined from time to time. I don’t it needs to be a lifelong right. It should be earned. Don’t professors know how to do that?” he said.

4. Senator Zaffirini said the UT System has made open records requests very difficult for her office, citing the system put password locks on records she requested so she could not print them.

“It was such a difficult process, it was like pulling teeth. Typically we get the documents just before 5 o’clock on Friday, typically we’re gone just before 5 o’clock on Friday,” she said. “What are they hiding, Regent Foster?

5. Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, tells the nominees he thinks they and the board are on a mission to fire UT’s President Powers.

“So gentlemen, this morning if I had to vote (on your confirmation) I would vote no, because I don’t want to play any role in the replacing of Bill Powers,” Whitemire said. “First of all, he’s an outstanding human being, he’s recognized in this nation as a leader in the academic field, he has an impeccable integrity.”  

The UT System Board of Regents’ decision last week to disclose information requested by Texas lawmakers has not stopped legislative efforts to clarify regents’ proper adherence to the state’s open records law.

Board Chairman Gene Powell sought advice on April 5 from the Texas Attorney General’s Office regarding the legality of withholding information requested by lawmakers in March. 

This drew criticism from legislators and State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, filed a bill last week to address regents’ adherence to the Texas Public Information Act, a state law that allows citizens to access government documents.

Zaffirini told The Daily Texan on Monday she had begun receiving documents from the System after regents voted Thursday to disclose the documents, but she will continue to push her bill, which has 16 co-sponsors.

“From my perspective, there is no justification for withholding any information from a legislator who requests information for legislative purposes,” Zaffirini said. “But, because [regents] seem to think that there is, we needed to address it through legislation.”

Under the act, state agencies have 10 days to seek an opinion from the attorney general’s office about whether they may withhold certain documents. Otherwise, agencies must allow requestors to view information.

Zaffirini said her bill, which was left pending in the Senate Open Government Committee on Monday, would clarify that the 10-day period also applies to lawmakers seeking information for legislative purposes. 

Zaffirini said it would also institute a rolling mechanism by which agencies would supply information as it became available during the 10-day period, not wait until they had compiled all information related to requests. This would apply to legislators and the general public.

UT spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said the System began supplying documents requested by lawmakers on Friday. She said the System’s Office of General Counsel is compiling more documents in response to legislators’ requests.

In his letter to the Attorney General’s Office, Powell cited concerns that releasing information to lawmakers could possibly hinder an investigation into the UT Law School Foundation, which awarded a $500,000 forgivable loan to Lawrence Sager, then-dean of the School of Law. In 2011, President William Powers Jr. asked Sager to resign. However, Sager still holds a faculty position at the School of Law.

In an interview published Monday, Regent Wallace Hall told Texas Monthly that regents intended to comply with legislators’ information requests, but said he has concerns about how to handle requests “in a sensitive way.”

“The Legislature doesn’t fully understand what we’re about to give them,” Hall said. “We have issues — HIPAA, FERPA — that are ancillary to what I think they want to see, and we need to make sure that we treat that information according. There is certainly information in there that could chill the investigation if it is widely disseminated.”

Printed on Tuesday, April 16, 2013 as Regents comply with open record legislation