Legislative session to test budget clout of UT regents' chairman

5 percent cut would be 'devastating,' Huffines says

By: Ralph K.M. Haurwitz, Staff
Austin American-Statesman
Friday, December 10, 2004

When James Huffines became chairman of the University of Texas System's governing board in June, it was seen by some as a sign that higher education was getting a powerful insider who might be able to wring money and support from the state's political leadership.

After all, Huffines is a seasoned Republican, having served as appointments secretary in the late 1980s to Gov. Bill Clements. He's in the kitchen cabinet of the current occupant of the Governor's Mansion, Rick Perry.

Indeed, few people are as close to Perry as Huffines, whose day job is chairman of Plains-Capital Bank's Central and South Texas region.

But it remains to be seen whether friendship, access and political ties will produce dividends for the system's 15 academic and health campuses, and higher education generally, during the legislative session that begins next month. Lawmakers are bound to have their hands full dealing with public school finance, property taxes, child-protection services and children's health insurance.

Huffines conceded this week that he has no commitment of support from Perry on a particular dollar figure for higher education or on whether the issue ranks at the top of the gubernatorial to-do list. And he displayed a flash of frustration with legislative budget writers who instructed the UT System and other state agencies to limit their requests for general revenue appropriations to 95 percent of the current budget.

"That would be devastating," Huffines said in a meeting with Austin American-Statesman editors and writers. "Let me just say that's totally unacceptable. It could have a very serious impact if in fact the Legislature kept us to that funding level."

Mark Yudof, the system's chancellor, using what he only half-jokingly called "Yudof's math," said a 5 percent cut would have the impact of a 12 percent cut, after student-enrollment growth and inflation are factored into the equation.

Dr. Kenneth Shine, the system's executive vice chancellor for health affairs, said care for uninsured residents would be among the programs that would suffer reductions.

Legislative appropriations currently provide $1.3 billion a year to the UT System, less than 20 percent of the system's annual budget. Much of the rest comes from a variety of special-purpose sources, including research grants earmarked for certain projects and therefore unavailable for "any random liberal arts department," Yudof said.

Lawmakers last year ceded tuition-setting power to university governing boards, and the UT System's Board of Regents responded by increasing tuition at UT-Austin and other campuses.

Huffines said he expected the campuses to propose "very, very, very modest increases" in tuition for next year. UT-Austin President Larry Faulkner is reviewing a 4.75 percent boost recommended by a campus committee.

Asked about his discussions with the governor, Huffines said: "Let me just say we for the last year have been visiting regularly with all the leadership, whether it's the lieutenant governor, the speaker and the governor, as well as chairmen of the various committees, to inform them on our needs for higher education and the absolute importance of doing something now to prepare for the future generations.

"The economy and the future quality of life in our state are directly related to how we solve our education problems, not just higher ed but public school, too. And I would say to you that I hope and trust that the governor and all the leadership will come out and support our funding needs of higher ed, and I will certainly do everything in my power to see that they do.

"I am constantly, every week, advocating for higher funding. If we have to look at new revenues, so be it," he said.

Huffines said Perry and other political leaders are considering "some very creative ideas" that have been put forward.

He did not specify the ideas, and he expressed some doubt that they would be considered during the upcoming legislative session because public school finance and other issues are expected to absorb much of the lawmakers' time and energy.

Asked about the possibility of a bond issue along the lines of a $2.3 billion measure approved by California voters in March for college and university construction projects, Huffines said: "Down the road I could see something, hopefully something, like that. I don't know what it would look like. I don't see it this session."

rhaurwitz@statesman.com; 445-3604