A Senate committee on Wednesday voted to significantly rework how universities in Texas are funded — a move that will save some smaller regional schools from catastrophic cuts but instead spread significant losses more evenly among all the public colleges in the state.
Each university would lose 6 percent to 10 percent of its state funding under the plan. Some of the smaller schools had been facing reductions of more than 50 percent in the first version of the Senate's budget.
But the help for the smaller schools would come in part at the expense of others, especially large growing universities. Texas A&M University, for example, stood to see its funding increase in the Senate's initial budget. Now it could end up with millions less.
The changes approved by the Senate Finance Committee are far from final. The full Senate will vote on the budget bill, and then that document will need to be reconciled with whatever version of the budget that the House passes.
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But Wednesday’s actions will surely heighten university officials’ concerns that losses are looming. Texas lawmakers need to find places to save, because they don’t want to raise taxes and have almost 3 percent less money at their disposal this session compared with two years ago. At least in the Senate, universities have become a big target.
"A lot of people are going to be unhappy," said Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, who chaired a working group focusing on education funding. "No one is going to be ecstatic. But given the numbers we are dealing with, I think we turned out pretty well."
The change in approach deals with the elimination of specific funding for special projects outside the traditional university funding formulas. Last session, the Legislature spent $1.1 billion on such "special items." But the Senate's first version of the budget didn't include any of those funds.
Senate budget writers said the special items were unfair and unorganized. Sometimes items would be put into the budget to help universities start up new departments or areas of study, but then would remain in the budget for decades. Others funded museums and other programs that didn't seem to align with the core goals of the universities.
"The best way to get a special item was really to have an influential alumnus" in the Legislature, said Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee.
But the items were also hugely important to smaller schools, some of which would have lost more than half their state funding in the initial budget.
On Wednesday, the committee opted to take $700 million of the $1.1 billion that had gone to special items in the last budget and insert it into funding formulas that are based roughly on the number of students at each school. To prevent the smaller schools from suffering too much, the committee put a cap and a floor on how much money each could lose. Some money that would have gone to a school that's only losing 6 percent instead would go to schools that had been on track to lose more than 10 percent.
Of the 38 four-year universities in Texas, the Texas State Technical Colleges and Lamar Colleges, 24 will lose 10 percent of their funding. Seventeen will lose 6 percent.
"The rest are somewhere in between," Seliger said.
Specific numbers for each university weren't available Wednesday evening.
The changes were approved by a 15-0 vote, though some senators suggested that their votes pained them.
"I worry that we are doing something very, very big without thinking of all the parameters," said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.
It’s unclear whether the House will favor such a plan. The lower chamber's preliminary budget included about $1 billion in special items. And universities fare better overall in the current version, which would bump funding for the schools by less than 1 percent. Seliger, however, said that he has heard "anecdotally that the House has some interest in what we have done."
Disclosure: Texas A&M University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.