Senate bill could end tuition deregulation

By John Moritz
Fort Worth Star-Telegram Austin Bureau
Tue, May. 03, 2005

AUSTIN - The Texas Senate on Tuesday fired a broadside against runaway tuition increases by the state's public universities, approving legislation that could rescind the authority it gave the institutions to set their own rates.

Under Senate Bill 1228, a legislative oversight panel would have to review the effects of the 2003 law deregulation university tuition and make a recommendation in 2007 to the full Legislature as to whether the program should be continued.

The push to return the responsibility for setting tuition rates to the Legislature came in an amendment by state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, to legislation that would study the short-term and long-term effects of tuition deregulation and other issues facing universities. "For over 100 years, this Legislature regulated tuition, and we did it very well," he said.

The bill's author, state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, first objected to Ellis' move, which would have ended deregulation without any study. But once it was clear Ellis had the votes to pass his amendment, Shapiro paused to regroup.

In the end, she agreed to a compromise that included the study before lawmakers would once again set tuition rates. The bill now goes to the House where its future is uncertain. House Speaker Tom Craddick is a longtime supporter of tuition deregulation.

Ellis said his intention was to "strangle tuition increases to death," and that many senators cast the vote in 2003 deregulate tuition under the duress of having to bridge a $9.9 billion budget gap without raising taxes.

During a floor debate on his amendment before the compromise with Shapiro, state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, said universities should be given free rein to set tuition so that administrators would have the money needed to attract top-flight faculty and to make long-range plans for their institutions' future.

"In my view, the market does work," Duncan said, adding that if the flagship universities in Austin and College Station set their rates too high, smaller ones such as Texas Tech, the University of North Texas and UT-Arlington would become more attractive to families on a budget.

All three senators who represent Tarrant County -- Republicans Chris Harris of Arlington, Kim Brimer of Fort Worth and Jane Nelson of Lewisville -- voted to end tuition deregulation.

Public university tuition in Texas rose by an average of one-third last academic year. According to a Scripps Howard poll released in February, 58 percent of Texans believe that the Legislature was wrong to lift the tuition cap in 2002 and unleash a rash of tuition increases.

University officials have complained about the steady drop in state aid to higher education, and they've said they need money to hire more faculty to keep up with growing enrollments and compete with other universities.

Staff writer Patrick McGee contributed to this report.

John Moritz, (512) 476-4294