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Texas universities entered the 2017 session of the Texas Legislature gearing up for fights over tuition and who can use what bathroom.
But with the session underway, the schools have instead found themselves fighting for an arcane budgeting trick — one that could affect up to $1 billion worth of appropriations for higher education items such as museums, research projects and new academic programs. The House has signaled plans to keep the trick essentially in place. The Senate's first crack at the state budget almost doesn't use it at all.
. . . The trick is known as a “special item,” and in higher education it’s a way for lawmakers to insert money for particular university programs into the state budget outside the standard appropriations formulas. In 2015, the Legislature allocated 362 special items worth a combined $1.1 billion.
But when the House and Senate filed their first versions of the proposed state budget for 2018-19, there was a huge disparity. The House kept special items for universities at about the same level. The Senate included almost none.
Many university officials were surprised by the Senate’s first crack. They say their schools could lose serious money if the Senate budget holds up. That’s especially true for newer, growing schools, which depend heavily on the items.
“If those [special items] are not reinstated, we will have real difficulty keeping our doors open,” said Emily Cutrer, president of Texas A&M University – Texarkana.
But one key Senate leader says the schools shouldn’t panic. The budget is a work in progress, and months of negotiations between the House and Senate will happen before the final spending plan is produced. Special items are one of the key differences between the two chambers' plans. Nonetheless, it's likely that some funds will be added in even before the Senate finishes its version of the budget.