Tech fund bill gets nod but no money

Senate backs economic development measure despite financing concerns.

By Mike Ward, Staff
May 7, 2005
Austin American-Statesman

The Texas Senate on Friday approved a bill establishing the Emerging Technology Fund promoted by Gov. Rick Perry as a key to future economic growth in Texas.

Before Senate Bill 831 was approved, however, a chorus of influential senators questioned whether the fund, which would be financed with $300 million in transfers from other state accounts, will unfairly siphon dollars away from existing research projects.

"This could be the future of Texas," Senate Education Committee Chairman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, the bill's principal author, said in explaining how the new fund will seed innovative technology projects, match federal research grants at universities and reward and incentivize research already under way in Texas.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said that although the program looks like a bold initiative, it will be much less if money is not found. And although he said he supported the concept, Ellis questioned whether money for existing programs will be used to finance the new one.

"It's giving me heartburn," he said.

To the questions, Shapiro had a sharp retort: "We will be behind the 8 ball, on the late bus, my friend, if we do not vote for this."

Answered Ellis: "With no money, the driver of this bus will be laughing."

After the debate, 27 senators voted for the bill, while four voted against.

Earlier this year, in his State of the State speech to the Legislature, Perry had made the creation of the Emerging Technology Fund a priority, calling it a key to Texas' economic growth during the coming decades. With the emerging technology field expected to generate trillions of dollars in business in coming years worldwide, California and other states have begun creating similar programs to become centers for the development of new and innovative technology — nanotechnology and other commercial endeavors.

As part of the technology projects that supporters of the bill hope Texas can create will be "regional centers of innovation and commercialization," linked to Texas universities and established in Austin, Dallas and Fort Worth, El Paso, Houston, the Rio Grande Valley and other urban areas of Texas. They will help fuel research projects that can be turned into commercial ventures — and bring new revenue and jobs to Texas, according to Shapiro.

"Millions and millions of dollars are being invested in emerging technologies, and if we don't take immediate and aggressive steps, this tech revolution will leave us behind," she said.

Despite those plans, the bill only establishes the structure of the fund — and puts no money into it. That will have to be done in the budget, where supporters have proposed a transfer of $300 million from the state's Economic Stabilization Fund.

But that transfer has yet to be voted on. And judging from some of Friday's debate, it could face a rocky future in the Senate Finance Committee where, so far, it has not been financed.

Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, quizzed Shapiro about whether the money might be better spent on current research, such as an ongoing expansion of the world-renowned M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

"I hate to be talking about redirecting money to a new program" when so many existing projects are unfinanced and underfinanced, Ogden said.

But Shapiro insists that the fund will complement the current research.