Higher education rift stalls budget talks

By CONNIE MABIN
Associated Press Writer
May 26, 2003

AUSTIN (AP) - Texas universities' dream to be free of state regulations on setting tuition and other functions may soon come true.

But first several ideas must clear the House and the Senate, where support for tuition deregulation is not so strong.

The Texas House on Monday was scheduled to take up legislation needed to push forward House Speaker Tom Craddick's wish to allow the institutions to set their own tuition.

Right now, state lawmakers decide what college students must pay.

The measure by Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, would loosen a plethora of laws and rules for higher education institutions and set up guidelines for the administration, operation, governance and financing of colleges and universities.

Over the weekend, Craddick and Senate leader Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, both Republicans, announced that tuition deregulation was part of a budget deal struck between the two chambers.

Dewhurst said he promised the Senate would support whatever deregulation plan comes out of the House.

But Senate budget negotiators are upset with the higher education deal, particularly over the House's resistance to put more money into health-related academic institutions.

On Sunday, budget talks stalled over the disagreement.

Senate leaders agreed to tuition deregulation because the House agreed to add $500 million in additional funding to higher education in the budget, Dewhurst said.

He acknowledged the deal is a hard sell in his chamber.

"There's lukewarm support in the Senate. We're going to have to twist some arms for tuition deregulation because it principally helps two schools: UT-Austin and A&M at Bryan/College Station. And we've got a lot of different universities around the state," Dewhurst told The Associated Press.

Several Democrats in the House also oppose deregulation, saying it would put more burden on families that don't qualify for low-income aid but aren't wealthy enough to pay for college on their own.

Craddick and House Appropriations Chairman Talmadge Heflin, R-Houston, said the decision to deregulate college tuition was to compensate for a 10 percent cut in state higher education spending in the next state budget.

"There was no way for us to continue to fund higher education in the manner that's needed unless you have this," Craddick said.

"We're not funding higher education in the foreseeable future in the manner it needs," he said. "This is going to allow the institutions flexibility."

If the necessary legislation is approved and the budget passes, deregulation for all students will begin Sept. 1.

Grants would be established for low-income students who might see tuition increases, Craddick said.

State universities, facing a budget squeeze and funding cuts, had lobbied the Legislature to lift the state's limits on tuition.

Students don't like the proposal.

"I fear for those students who are already on financial aid," said Rachael Rose, 22, of Plano, a senior majoring in education at Texas Tech University. "It's just going to put them at a higher risk to drop out or to have greater student loans to pay off."

GOP leaders facing a $9.9 billion shortfall said tuition deregulation is part of a balanced budget without raising taxes. The budget proposes cuts in spending across state government.

In April, the House approved a bill that would give university governing boards the power to set student tuition rates in 2005.

But that proposal increased undergraduate tuition right away and set up a one-year trial for full deregulation in 2005.

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The tuition deregulation bills are HB 3015 and SB 1652.