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March 29, 2004     (512) 463-0300

Money and Education Dominate Senate Committee Hearings

AUSTIN - Don Brown, Commissioner of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, gave the members of the Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education an overview of the state of higher education in Texas today. More than 1.1 million students are now in Texas colleges, with another 500,000 in community colleges. Of the students entering college, more than fifty percent get a bachelor's degree within six years.

He also gave figures on how minorities are closing the gap in higher education, saying that Texas is doing better in some areas than others. As to national ranking systems, he said Texas is far overrepresented in the fourth-tier institutions, but not represented enough in the top ten.

Other witnesses pointed out that the top ten percent rule has impacted enrollment in Texas universities.

Also at the Capitol today was the Joint Select Committee on Public School Finance. Public testimony was offered and the committee heard many different ideas on how to fund and operate the public schools. The committee was told by some witnesses that recent gains may be short-lived, unless the issue of funding equity between school districts is addressed and that the current so-called "Robin Hood" plan, which takes money from wealthier districts and gives it to poorer ones, is the best way to do this. In its final report, the committee has said it would like to do away with the Robin Hood system.

Other witnesses criticized the concept of split tax rolls, saying that business should not be singled out for taxation at a special rate. The committee also heard that some school districts were operating at such an efficient level that they did not need higher funding and that it should be the goal of the state to ensure that all districts are as efficient.

Schools weren't the only issue before senators today. The Senate Finance Committee reviewed the state's Pension funds and Enterprise Funds. Given the downturn in the stock market over the past few years, pension funds across the country have come under pressure. Ginger Smith, from the Texas Pension Review Board, said that Texas funds have been hurt by the downturn, but were basically solvent. Even so, some of the Texas pension funds are backed by state revenue and, as required by law, have notified the state that they may need help in meeting their obligations.

In the Senate Chamber, the Jurisprudence Committee was examining the salaries, supplements, retirements and benefit issues for Texas judges. The first witness was the Hon. Thomas Phillips, Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court. He said that judges hadn't had an increase in pay since the 1990s, one of those having been refused by the voters. He said that in an ideal system, the Supreme Court should make "slightly more than other judges", that the pay for Texas judges is in the bottom third of all states and is hurting the state in the retention of judicial talent.

The Hon. Patricia Lykos, Senior District Judge from Harris County, told the members that when the 75th Legislature gave judges a pay raise, pay levels became unequal for many positions. She also said that some judges did not receive a ten percent raise due to an oversight by the 77th Legislature.

Senator Robert Duncan said the Legislature needed figures on how much each $1000 in a raise for members of the judiciary would cost the state. He also said one reason the Legislature was reluctant to raise retirement pay for judges was that this has the effect of raising retirement pay for legislators as well, since the two are linked.

Alicia Key, Executive Director of the Office of Court Administration, recommended that the state find an "objective standard" by which to measure judges' salaries, such as increases given to federal judges.

Two advisory bodies met today as well. The Texas Water Advisory Council held its first meeting and received a briefing on its interim activities from co-chairmen Senator Ken Armbrister and Representative Robert Puente, as well as a briefing on House Bill 1378 from the regular session, relating to water planning and development in Texas. The Advisory Committee on Rock Crushers and Quarries heard from The Texas Council on Environmental Quality, The Texas Department of Transportation and the Lower Colorado River Authority on how such operations affect local residents.

All committees recessed subject to call of the chair, with future meeting dates to be announced.

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