SENATE APPROVES BUDGET; TYC, TUITION BILLS MOVING IN COMMITTEE
(AUSTIN) — The Senate passed Thursday a $152 billion budget for the 2008-2009 biennium. This is an increase of 3.4 percent over the last biennium, and it is the largest budget ever considered by the state. In spite of the size, bill author Senator Steve Ogden said it is a modest increase over the last budget, and remains fiscally conservative while putting more money into essential services. "I believe the budget is balanced, it is conservative, and it is fair," said Ogden. "It focuses on our priorities."
Health and human services and public education are the biggest allocations, totaling $54 billion. Ogden said this session's budget is the best he has ever seen for education, and pays for last session's teacher pay raises, and adds another $500 to educator annual pay. Also, the state's contribution for college financial aid is up 33 percent under the Senate budget.
More money is directed at critical health and human services, like Medicaid and Child Protective Services, with the Children's Health Insurance Program getting 80 percent more money, for a total allocation of $1.8 billion. The Senate budget also includes money for more security along the border, increases legislative oversight for state agencies like the Texas Department of Transportation, and pays for a $1.77 billion Medicaid lawsuit settlement through a .059 percent cut across all state agencies.
Senate Finance Committee Vice-Chair Judith Zaffirini said she is pleased with the budget. She added that the 26-5 passage in the Senate is a strong vote for the bill, saying it reflects the way lawmakers worked together to create a fair budget. "Some of us wanted to spend more, a lot more, but some people wanted to spend a lot less," she said. "This is a bill that reflects negotiation and serious compromise. It's a good bill."
The Senate Criminal Justice Committee considered a bill Wednesday to introduce sweeping reforms at the Texas Youth Commission. The bill, by McAllen Senator Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, would stop referrals of misdemeanor juvenile offenders to TYC, and would increase employee training to 300 hours. Inmates would have to be separated by age and crime category. It would also create a parents' bill of rights that would inform parents of agency policies, especially the grievance process, in an effort to avoid the lack of transparency many lawmakers blame for the current scandal.
Bills aimed at reining in rising tuition costs and changing the state's automatic admission policy came before the Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education. Tuition and fees at state universities are up 39 percent since deregulation in 2003, and legislators want to slow or stop this increase. Senate bill 85, by Hinojosa, would put a three year moratorium on tuition increases, and would cap increases after that at 5 percent per year. "I don't think we should allow universities to set their own tuition. There is a conflict of interest inherent in the institution," Hinojosa said. "They will always want more money, they will always need more money, there is no doubt about that, but it ought to be the responsibility of the Legislature." Other bills considered by the committee would allow the legislature to decide whether or not to re-regulate tuition, and would tie tuition increases to income.
The committee also looked at legislation that would change, or even end the state policy of granting automatic admission to state colleges and universities for high school students graduating in the top ten percent of their class. Proponents of the policy say it has dramatically increased diversity at state colleges, but detractors say it handcuffs admission officials, and could eventually make class rank the only factor in deciding college admission.
Senator Florence Shapiro of Plano introduced a bill that would cap admissions under the top ten percent rule at half of the incoming freshman class. She says colleges should consider a variety of factors when deciding who should attend. "I believe that simply gauging the GPA or class rank is a problem," she said. "Students have talents and experiences that bring diversity to every institution and to every classroom, and it is those students that are being shut out of the chance to excel at these flagship institutions."
The Senate will reconvene Monday, April 16, at 1:30 p.m.