Editorial: Pass These Bills on Higher Ed, Water Plan Money, Smoking Ban
These students have wasted more than their own time and tuition money. There’s also the lost investment that taxpayers made in subsidizing their education.
Texas has a weak record in keeping undergraduates focused on completing their coursework: It ranks third among states in the amount it spends on students who drop out their first year. Measured over five years, that adds up to $471 million in taxpayers’ money.
Using carrot and stick, lawmakers can push universities this year to get better at their core mission of putting students in caps and gowns. Legislation to improve this picture, HB 9 by Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, passed the House overwhelmingly last week, 118-22. It now awaits action in the Senate Higher Education Committee, whose chairman, Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, had a companion bill and has been an effective evangelist for building the state’s universities.
The Senate needs to complete work on this reform and move it toward the governor’s desk.
HB 9 goes by the name Higher Education Outcomes-Based Funding Act. It would direct the Higher Education Coordinating Board to devise measures that would be linked to funding for state schools. Completion rates are a key measure. Others would include total degrees, degrees for at-risk students and degrees in critical fields of math, science, computer science and health.
State support now is linked to the headcount at the beginning of a semester and generally doesn’t account for students who drift off afterward. The state needs a better system.
In 2000, the coordinating board mapped out a plan for improving higher education in Texas. Called “Closing the Gaps,” it highlighted improvement needed in educating minorities and pinpointed a shortage of post-graduate degrees, estimated at 46,000 a year. This Legislature needs to accelerate progress in closing these gaps to make sure Texas has an educated, competitive workforce.
Lawmakers have taken other steps this year to be smarter about education spending: Both houses passed similar bills to target the most accomplished students for state TEXAS grants. The bills, SB 28 by Zaffirini and HB 10 by Branch, would do away with the current system of awarding grants essentially in the order that applications are received. A House-Senate conference committee is now ironing out differences between the bills.
Lawmakers have another important bit of unfinished business in higher education: replenishing the incentive fund created two years ago to match private donations that universities secure to support research. The goal is to motivate seven select schools — including the University of Texas-Dallas, UT-Arlington and the University of North Texas — to become nationally recognized Tier One universities.
House and Senate budget negotiators should keep this incentive alive. The $36 million recommended in the Senate is an appropriate amount.
Rescue Texas’ water plan
As in previous sessions, the Texas House has failed to approve a way to finance Texas’ 50-year water plan. That means the Senate needs to step up once more. Senators don’t need a new bill and instead could amend a proposal by Rep. Allan Ritter to SB 660, the sunset legislation reviewing the Texas Water Development Board’s work. Ritter, R-Nederland, wanted to create a minimal tap fee that residents, businesses and industries would pay monthly as a way to finance the plan for long-term water supplies. This newspaper strongly urges Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a water champion, to get that idea through the Senate.
Drop threat to middle-class and working Texans
HB 5, by Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, is the latest danger for Texans who depend on Medicaid for nursing home services, hospital care and doctor visits. For their sake, the Senate should defeat this House-backed bill, which would require that Texas join other states in asking Congress to essentially drop Medicaid as an entitlement. States would receive a certain amount of federal Medicaid money in an annual block grant; after that, they care for their Medicaid patients. Texas’ Medicaid program is now guided by terms of a federal lawsuit because the state didn’t adequately care for Medicaid-eligible children. While this newspaper favors more flexibility, sadly, Texas hasn’t shown it deserves to operate under a block grant.
Keep tabs on gas drillers
The House took a bold step by approving HB 3328, requiring gas drillers to disclose hazardous chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluids. The sponsor, Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Granbury, hopes to clear up any ambiguities about groundwater contamination near drilling sites. “There are concerns: What’s going down the hole? Is it poisonous? What is it doing to the water supply?” Keffer told The Associated Press. “I felt like the time had to come to get it off the table.” Though the bill still has loopholes for gas producers, we’d like to see the Senate pass it quickly, making Texas the first state to impose this high standard of transparency on drillers.
Snuff smoking in public places
Legislation that would ban smoking statewide in most public places appeared to be on the fast track to approval when almost half of the lawmakers in the House signed on as co-authors. But somehow, the clock ran out on HB 670. The House failed to pass this common-sense measure before a key deadline last week. Proponents remain hopeful that the proposal can be tacked on as an amendment to other legislation. If this good-for-public-health ban wins House approval, North Texas senators could be key in the Senate. Some of our local lawmakers have not embraced the smoking ban, but they should.
Mandate an energy policy — finally
State Sen. Troy Fraser’s measure to develop a much-needed statewide energy plan passed the Senate and now needs to move out of the House State Affairs Committee. The Horseshoe Bay Republican’s bill would create a Texas Energy Policy Council to guide the state’s transition from dirty coal-fired power plants to newer and cleaner forms of energy. In addition, SB 15 would require the Texas Railroad Commission to study coal and natural gas reserves and compel the Public Utility Commission to report on electric energy generation and recommend cost-effective ways for Texas to comply with environmental regulations.
HOW MANY GRADUATE?
These numbers represent undergrads who enrolled in 2003 and graduated within six years.
Texas A&M University: 84.1%
Texas Tech: 71.5%
University of North Texas: 56.0%
University of Texas at Arlington: 55.3%
SOURCE: Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board