Public Institution - Private Agenda

Behind the scenes the UT Regents and the UT System push legislation against the public interest

By Nick Schwellenbach
February 2004; page 7; Number 4.
Issue

"Even before lawmakers convened in Austin in January, University of Texas System Chancellor Mark Yudof was pushing the idea [of tuition deregulation]."
-The Austin-American Statesman
5/26/2003

Before the 78th Texas Legislature convened last January the UT Board of Regents and UT System staff were working to pass tuition deregulation and other legislative goals. Tuition deregulation has been sought by UT for over 10 years and last year through lobbying and other means to influence the Legislature, UT achieved this shift in power. The UT System, ostensibly a public institution serving the public, pursued policies at odds with its intended relationship with Texas, namely to provide affordable, quality education to all Texans.

The UT Board of Regents, an unelected and unaccountable cadre of politically connected business people, is the ultimate locus of authority within the UT System. They gain their appointments through large political contributions, especially to the governor. Tuition deregulation took the power to set tuition, through the establishment of maximum rates, out of the hands of the elected and accountable legislature and put that power in the hands of the regents. Tuition is now increasing at an unprecedented rate in Texas universities which threatens access for many Texans and creates a highly differentiated two-tiered system of education.

Political Contributions

Predictably one of the earliest and most ardent supporters of tuition deregulation was Governor Rick Perry, one of the largest beneficiaries of the Regents. Chairman of the Board Miller's contributions to Perry from January 2000-Fall 2003 alone total $100,600. In his State of the State address (2/11/03), Perry expressed his support for tuition deregulation.

Speaker of the House Tom Craddick (R-Midland) was adamant in his support for deregulation. After deregulation was initially defeated in a Senate committee, Craddick, along with Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst, revived it in an eight hour closed door meeting. According to the Austin-American Statesman (6/1/03), "Craddick refused to sign off on the [state] budget without complete deregulation." Miller's contributed $5,000 to Craddick on December 5th, 2002, soon before the start of the 78th Legislative session. It is against the law for politicians to receive contributions during the session. (Miller has also made at least one large donation to Texans for a Republican Majority; it is political action committee strongly associated with Craddick).

Perry, Craddick, Dewhurst and most members of the Senate Committee on Education, such as Senators Florence Shapiro, Todd Staples and Kyle Janek, were targeted by the Regents through contributions. Chairman Charles Miller has built up rapport with Texas politicians, mostly Republican, through his contributions over several years giving him access and a greater voice than the average Texas citizen, not to mention students.

Yudof memo

However his latest contributions to Dewhurst and Craddick appear to rewards for the passage of the UT System's legislative agenda. Bill Medaille of Texans for Public Justice states, "it was assumed during the legislative session that certain people would be well paid for their help in passing tuition deregulation. Now that the legislative session has ended, a flow of money is starting to show up." Dewhurst and Craddick have both received large donations from Chairman Miller after the regular session.

Another prong of the UT System's strategy to influence the Legislature is through the usage of its innocently named Office of Governmental Relations, aka UT's team of highly paid lobbyists. Technically state law prohibits state agencies, such as the University, to lobby-helping to pass or defeat legislation. UT has skirted the law by simply not calling its lobbyists, well lobbyists!

Paid with six figure salaries, lobbyists such as Ashley Smith ($264,000 and an $8,400 car allowance), who began his work as a UT Vice Chancellor for Governmental Relations one week before the 78th Legislature convened last January, worked behind the scenes in meetings with legislators in and out of the Capitol. For example from January to March 2002 Smith met with Representative Morrison (R-Victoria), author of the tuition deregulation bill, at least six times, with Senator Florence Shapiro (R-Plano), Chair of the Senate Committee on Education, six times, and with Senator Royce West (D-Dallas), Chair of the Senate Subcommittee of Higher Education, five times.

Additionally, from his official itinerary obtained in an open records request, Smith appeared at the Orange and Maroon Day, a day where UT and A&M alumni lobbied on behalf of their alma maters. UT used well intentioned Texas Exes hoping to help their alma mater to lobby for many policies most students were against. UT's interest in using alumni is at least twofold - it is technically illegal for UT to lobby (although they do anyways) and using alumni possibly gave legislators the impression that UT promoted policies that had wide appeal among constituents. It is likely that Smith helped coordinate this event given his lobbying experience.

UT drafted legislative bills (hardly a neutral activity), lobbied, contacted newspaper editorial boards to obtain favorable newspaper coverage and contacted alumni to push their agenda. In sum the UT Board of Regents and the UT System administration have developed their own powerful internal ability to affect public policy and pursued and won policies that are more in line with a privatization agenda than serving the public.

UT Watch note: This article is a precursor to our full lobby report, found online at www.utwatch.org/lobby.html


< previous story next story >
Schwellenbach, Nick. "Public Institution - Private Agenda: Behind the scenes the UT Regents and the UT System push legislation against the public interest". February 2004. Issue. Vol. 1. No. 4. Page 7.
http://www.utwatch.org/archives/issue/issue_1_4.pdf