Texas legislature may affect UTEP’s future plans on education, budget for programs

Kimberly Valle, Entertainment Editor

UTEP will be submitting several funding requests in the current 84th Texas Legislature, specifically for an $111-million interdisciplinary research center that will replace Burges and Barry Halls.

The administration has stated that the center is necessary to achieve the university’s mission to increase its scientific research capabilities as it strives to attain Tier 1 status.

Richard Gutierrez, political science lecturer, said the education budget will have a direct impact on UTEP. He said more state money might be used by UTEP to enhance many of the current programs offered or create new ones.

“A significant increase in state monies could also help UTEP to maintain current tuition levels,” Gutierrez said. “It will be difficult for UTEP to expand services for more students if there is not an increase in state monies.”

The Republicans have controlled the legislature for the past 10 years. The 2014 mid-term elections increased the numbers of Republicans in both chambers, which enabled them to have a greater majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

“Democrats will have to work with more moderate Republicans to accomplish any of their legislative goals,” Gutierrez said. “The big question is how much influence the far right will have.”

Although the legislature is beginning the session with surplus revenue, if the price of gasoline continues to decline or stay at current levels, it will mean significantly less revenue for the state. Many Republicans are also pushing for major tax cuts, which adds to the situation.

“I believe that the education budget will only marginally increase if at all. This creates a real problem for Texas as the population continues to increase,” Gutierrez said.

There are three major leaders who exercise leadership: Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and speaker of the House of Representatives, Joe Straus.

Straus will serve his fourth term as speaker. Abbott and Patrick were just elected, but they know the legislative process well.

“The expectation is that the Senate will be the more conservative chamber, especially because the very conservative Patrick is the lieutenant governor,” said Gregory Rocha, associate professor of political science. “Straus, by contrast, is more of a moderate conservative who has the support of all of the Democrats and most of the Republicans.”

Many will watch the extent to which the most conservative Republicans and tea partyers will be able to affect legislation.  The expectation is that they will be more successful in the Senate than the House, but whether or not they will be able to craft very conservative legislation will be a challenge.

“If there is a cloud looming over the legislature, it’s the revenue the state receives from the petroleum industry, which has slowed due to the surplus of oil on the world market,” Rocha said.  “The comptroller, who has the power to officially estimate how much revenue will be available to spend, provided what many consider a generous estimate of that oil money, and many are calling it into question.”

Rocha said the overall expectation is that the legislature will try to cut taxes and spend minimally, which are two large policy issues to watch for, and will likely require more spending on public roads and bridges, and public education.  Both are longstanding problems that the leadership has said need to be addressed.

Students such as Damaris Reyes, senior multimedia journalism major, said there would be a large number of students that won’t be able to afford their education if tuition is increased.

“If there isn’t enough funding for certain programs, then how is it expected for people to learn and obtain that experience? As it is many students are working two jobs to be able to pay up loans,” Reyes said.

A bill has also been filed that will deny in-state tuition to the children of undocumented parents, which can hurt UTEP and other border institutions. Bills have also been filed to restore the legislative control over tuition rates. This might also have a big impact on UTEP.

“There is a bill in the Senate to end in-state tuition for students who are not citizens, objection to that has come from the business community, a stalwart of conservative support,” Rocha said.

Since 2006, the legislature has approved funding for these students and Rep. Joe Pickett, D-TX,  the longest-serving member of the El Paso delegation, said on Thursday that there appears to be a strong consensus to pass this bill this time around.

One bill filed by Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-TX, would re-regulate tuition instead of permitting universities to set rates themselves. Schwertner said that tuition in Texas’ public universities has increased quickly since it was de-regulated in 2003 and he said it’s time to regulate it.

The university has other items on its wish list that include:

•A secondary priority is funding for a $115 million in tuition revenue bonds for a new Business Administration Building and conference center. Graduate students in UTEP’s MBA Program are being housed in the Chase Building downtown because the campus doesn’t have room for them. A new business center would reunite them with undergrads.

•Five million dollars per year to expand the cooperative pharmacy program with the University of Texas at Austin, which enrolls 12 students a year in a program where they study two years at UTEP, two years in Austin, and then return to El Paso for two years of clinical work. The additional funding would allow UTEP to take 40 students a year into the program and allow them to do all of their study in El Paso.

•Five million dollars per year for the Centennial Scholars Program that provides tuition assistance for the most highly skilled students.

Kimberly Valle may be reached at [email protected]