Texas House Hits UT Regents Where it Hurts: In the Pocketbook

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The tensions between The Perry-Appointed UT System Board of Regents and UT Austin President Bill Powers are showing up in the Texas Legislature, specifically in the proposed State Budget.

We here at Barking Carnival like to keep it simple.

Our rules for this blog are so few you can count them on one hand and still have enough fingers left over to flash the "Hook 'Em"

The main was, is and always will be, NO POLITICS.

But of course this year there is a major story that cannot escape having at least a political undertone, and that is the debate over the future direction of "The University of a First Class," that we all love.

Essentially Gov Perry and his supporters have proposed several dramatic market-oriented reforms at the University level, some of which were seen as dramatically altering the purpose of college.

UT-Austin President William Powers was especially vocal over his opposition to some of the reforms and this has led directly to tension between Powers and the Perry-appointed Board of Regents.

It spilled over to the legislature this year when the Regents voted 4-3 to reopen an investigation into a forgivable loan program at the UT School of Law when Powers was Dean. Several member of the legislature viewed it has a ham-handed attempt to push Powers out, and that led to a a public display of support for Powers by several members of the legislature.

But this is Texas, where all's fair in love and politics -- and that includes everything from committee investigations to proposed legislation.

Up until now it has been good political theater. Now it's gotten serious. Now it involves money.

Republican Representative Jim Pitts is a graduate of SMU, but right now he is one of the staunchest defenders of Powers and UT that there is in the legislature.

Pitts is serving his 11th term in the House and is the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. That makes him one of the most powerful members of the Texas Legislature, and he is demonstrating how to use the power of the pursestrings.

Pitts introduced two riders (or amendments) to SB1 -- the budget bill -- that are directly aimed at the UT System Board of Regents.

The first rider basically eliminates the Regents authority over the Available University Fund, which are the funds given out from the Permanent University Fund. The UT System's share of the fund is projected to be $440 million out of this budget. The AUF is to be used for construction, maintenance and other related areas, and it has been used at the discretion of the Board of Regents in the past.

Pitts amendment puts the entire amount under the University of Texas at Austin -- cutting the Board of Regents and the System out of the process.

The other amendment would prohibit the UT System from spending appropriated funds to conduct any investigations into executive management in any of the system's institutions.

These two amendments passed in the House Thursday, each with over 75% of the votes.

The budget will no doubt end up in a conference committee to work out all the amendments that the House has added to the budget. Should these two amendments survive the committee and the budget gets passed, they will be protected from a line item veto from Gov. Perry.

The Attorney General has given an opinion that a budget rider that only directs how the appropriated money is to be spent, and doesn't add any funds to the budget is not subject to a line item veto.

Again, this is Texas, so there has to be some nasty in-fighting somewhere during the process.

There is.

UT Regent Wallace Hall has led the charge against Powers, calling for more transparency and accountability. Hall started his own investigation into the Law School Fund and through open records requests has gotten dozens of boxes of university emails and papers.

Now the Texas Tribune is reporting that Hall may have some transparency problems of his own. It turns out that on his application to the Board of Regents, Hall left out not one, not two, but six lawsuits that he was involved in.

Hall says the omissions were unintentional, but several lawmakers are already talking about having him appear before a committee to explain.

Just how far all this legislative blowback will reach remains to be seen. The preliminaries are winding up, and now we get to the main event. Keep in mind while all the noise continues in the legislature that the main point of this fight remains over what a "University of the first class," should look like and how it should benefit the State.

As Sailor Ripley so eloquently put it:

"Mack Brown and Rick Barnes are bread and circus. You mess with my sheepskin, you'll see a man get mean."

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