WEEK IN REVIEW
SENATE PASSES BILL TO REIN IN TUITION GROWTH
(Austin) — Universities that want to hike tuition would have to meet a series of accountability benchmarks under a bill approved by the Senate Thursday. Since the Legislature voted to deregulate tuition in 2003, tuition has more than doubled according to data collected by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Senate Higher Education Committee Chair Senator Kel Seliger said that if colleges want to continue to raise tuition in the future, they have to earn it. "If an institution wants to charge more, they must provide more," he said.
Seliger's bill, SB 778, sets forth eleven criteria, including goals like graduation rate, number of diplomas awarded, and administrative costs. Goal targets will be set by university boards of governors and colleges must meet a majority of the criteria to raise tuition. Otherwise, tuition increases cannot exceed the rate of inflation. The bill was amended to add two more checks on tuition growth. The first, by Georgetown Senator Charles Schwertner, would prohibit tuition increases of more than three percent over the rate of inflation under any circumstances. The second, co-authored by Schwertner and Dallas Senator Royce West, would limit tuition growth for the two years before the law would go into effect to inflation plus one percent. This bill now heads to the House for consideration.
The joint conference committee on the state budget held its first public hearing on Tuesday. The panel, made up of five members from each chamber, will try to work out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget. The two spending plans are very close in total amounts, with less than one percent difference in total funds spent, but there are differences in how the two chambers would fund state services. Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson said she believes these differences aren't insurmountable. "These budgets have much more in common than they do in conflict and I am confident that we can work out the differences and pass a budget that will make Texas proud," she said.
One issue between the chambers that could impact budget negotiations is how to realize tax cuts promised by the state leadership. This week the House passed its tax cut bills, and like the Senate, the House approved a measure to cut the state franchise tax. Unlike the Senate, however, the House supported a cut to the sales tax rate. The Senate approved a bill to cut billions in property taxes back in March. Governor Greg Abbott has said he will reject any budget that lacks meaningful tax cuts, so the House and Senate will have to decide on one plan over the other or find a compromise between the two before session ends on June 1.
Also in committee this week was a bill to allow limited use of a marijuana-derived medicine for the treatment of intractable epilepsy. That disorder, which affects almost 150,000 people in Texas, mostly children, doesn't respond to standard treatments and can cause hundreds of seizures in a week and can cause severe developmental disabilities. Cannabidiol oil, or CBD, is derived from marijuana, but contains almost none of the psychoactive chemical associated with recreational use. "It is of no interest to recreational drug users and has no street value," said Tyler Senator Kevin Eltife. His bill, SB 339, would set up a framework under which CBD can be produced and distributed to patients suffering from intractable epilepsy. The Department of Public Safety would oversee the program and anyone seeking CBD for treatment would have to be recommended by two doctors. The bill remains pending before the committee.
The Senate will reconvene Monday, May 4 at 11 a.m.