Texas Senate approves $3 billion college campus construction bill

Students walk through an area known as The Quad on the first day of the fall semester at Texas State University in San Marcos on Aug. 24, 2020.

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

The Texas Senate approved a bill Friday that would issue $3 billion in bonds to fund higher education construction programs hours after Gov. Greg Abbott appeared to clear the way for the issue to be passed in the final stretch of the Legislature's third special session this year.

The bill adds another $50 million and includes multiple changes from the version approved by the Senate's higher education committee Thursday, but most of the changes involved redistributing funding.

The version heading to the Texas House now includes $60 million for Prairie View A&M University for a teaching and academic student support services center, using money redistributed from four other projects at schools within the Texas A&M University System.

The new plan also took $15 million from the University of Houston System's new medical research facility building project and gave it to the University of Houston-Downtown to add a fourth floor to its academic support building.

The measure also includes a name change for the funding mechanism – from tuition revenue bonds to capital construction assistance projects. It's an attempt by lawmakers to clarify that these construction projects are not paid for with tuition. Tuition revenue bonds are secured with tuition and other charges, but are paid back via state appropriations.

The total amount for these campus construction projects is still about $1 billion less than a House version that made its way to the House Appropriations Committee Friday morning, five days before the end of the special session.

That version gives every eligible campus money, but in most cases less than what they requested.

State Rep. DeWayne Burns, R-Cleburne, who filed that House bill, told The Texas Tribune that many universities could supplement funding with private donations or other sources.

"We tried to be fair and give every location a bite of the apple and an opportunity to go forward with their project," Burns said.

Burns said was confident the House and Senate could work together to find a compromise on their two proposals.

The Senate's swift passage of the construction bill came two days after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick asked Abbott to add the item to the agenda for the Legislature’s third special session.

Lawmakers can’t pass new laws during a special session that aren’t put on the agenda by the governor. Abbott added “legislation to improve higher education” to his agenda Friday.

Before the governor issued the latest proclamation letter, lawmakers had been exploring other ways for tuition revenue bonds to fall within the parameters of Abbott’s third special session objectives, which also includes determining how to spend $16 billion in federal COVID-19 relief money.

Last week, the Senate included up to $325 million that could be used toward tuition revenue bonds as part of a separate bill divvying up the coronavirus funds, another Abbott priority. In that bill, they said the federal money is contingent on the Legislature passing a bill during the third special session “relating to the issuance of tuition revenue bonds.”

By adding the higher education legislation to the agenda, Abbott made it easier for the Legislature to move the tuition revenue bond bill forward. But on Friday, Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, who filed the bill, reiterated his belief that now is the time to pass this bill since it's tied to federal COVID-19 money for campus construction in Senate Bill 8.

"Without that available money ... I would put a very low percentage chance on this effort passing in this special session or any other, until we're truly out of these economic and budgetary cautious times that we're finding ourselves in," he said. The legislative fiscal note estimates issuing $3 billion in bonds would cost the state around $291 million over the next two years.

Lawmakers had already been working with universities to decide which construction projects would be included in a tuition revenue bond bill even before Patrick asked the governor to add it to his agenda.

Originally, Creighton had filed a bill with $1.9 billion in higher education capital projects that focused solely on renovations. But on Thursday, Creighton moved to increase the amount of tuition revenue bonds allocated for campus construction to $3 billion through a committee substitute to his original bill.

The state hasn’t issued such bonds in six years.

Creighton said after listening to universities about the need for new construction as enrollment increases, lawmakers expanded the number of projects to include more at health institutions and regional public universities.

Some schools like Texas Southern University in Houston need urgent renovations. Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, said Thursday that in the past year, the historically Black university had to use generators for four months to keep the lights on, the aging electrical system is at risk of short-circuiting and heating and ventilation systems are so old that parts no longer exist. During the winter storm last February, the university suffered major water damage, too.

“If there's ever a time, if there was ever a need, Texas Southern has that need and now's the time,” Miles told lawmakers. “We can't trust the air in the classrooms that we send our kids to. We can't trust that when we turn the light switch on nothing's going to explode. We can't trust that when it rains a little bit, the roof’s not going to fall in.”

The bill includes $95 million for TSU renovations and upgrades.

For other colleges, rising student numbers mean schools of all sizes need to expand to meet the increased demand.

Mike Reeser, the chancellor of the Texas State Technical Colleges, a two-year college system that focuses on technical skills and trade programs, said at Thursday's committee meeting that his schools already require large industrial spaces for programs such as manufacturing or welding. With more demand, even more space is needed.

“We turned away 300 applicants the year before the pandemic in welding alone because we didn't have enough room to fit them in the labs,” Reeser told lawmakers.

The technical college system, which has campuses across the state, is slated to receive $208 million in this bill to help pay for new learning centers.

For years, higher education leaders grew accustomed to the Legislature passing construction bills for their projects every other session. But the time between the bills passing has widened over the past two decades. Before 2015, the state hadn’t passed a tuition revenue bond bill since 2006.

And even during the regular legislative session earlier this year, a $4.3 billion tuition revenue bond package failed to pass.

“There have been requests and demands from schools across the state,” Patrick said in the Wednesday letter to Abbott. “Both chambers stand willing to address the issue and provide the funds for tuition revenue bonds to our higher education institutions.”

Disclosure: The Texas State Technical College System, Prairie View A&M University, the Texas A&M University System and Texas Southern University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Correction, Oct. 17, 2021: A previous version of this article said state Rep. DeWayne Burns represents Corpus Christi. He represents Cleburne.