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Senate OKs $1.8 billion in college construction


http://www.statesman.com/

Lieutenant governor calls plan to issue new bonds unprecedented.

Austin-American Statesman (05/15/2006)
By Laylan Copelin

SAN MARCOS—The Texas Senate on Sunday night authorized $1.8 billion in new college construction bonds, an amount that Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst called "an unprecedented investment in higher education."

The only hitch is that state lawmakers must find the money.

The authorization, which the House is expected to approve before the special session ends Tuesday, will require a $400 million appropriation when lawmakers return in 2007.

Lawmakers postponed finding the money this year because they were concerned the state might exceed constitutional limits on spending.

Dewhurst insisted that the money can be found next year and brushed aside suggestions that legislators for the first time might tap tuition, instead of the state's general revenue, to pay off the bonds.

The measure passed overwhelmingly after the Senate and House leadership negotiated from a wish list of some $3.7 billion in projects.

"Many of you have been waiting for these projects for years," Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, told the senators.

Under the authorization, the University of Texas at Austin would finally be able to renovate its Experimental Science Building.

Half the building's laboratories are closed because of rusting pipes, and three of its five floors lack air conditioning; the building failed to meet fire code standards in 2005. The authorization is for $105 million.

Other projects in Central Texas include $42.7 million for an undergraduate academic center for Texas State University-San Marcos and $36 million for the second phase of that university's Round Rock campus.

Overall, Dewhurst said, the $1.8 billion would go toward construction projects at about 70 buildings on 50 campuses throughout the state.

Texas universities had been waiting for years for the extra help.

The schools submitted their needs to the state Higher Education Coordinating Board in 2004, but the bond authorization died in the Senate in 2005.

"Last year, there was friction as we all 'competed' against one another," Zaffirini said.

This time, the coordinating board rated the projects, while the institutions and the senator whose district includes the project ranked their priorities.

When there was disagreement between the institution and a senator, Zaffirini said, "we trusted the senators to make the choice."

The final $1.8 billion list of projects was negotiated between the Senate and House leadership over the weekend.

Although everyone was praising the cooperation between the chambers, there is one major sticking point: money for the Texas Tech medical school in El Paso. Two buildings are about to be completed without operational money to hire faculty.

Dewhurst noted the importance of funding the medical school:

"I hope Speaker Craddick shares those views and it's just a question of when," he said.