Students walk through an area known as “The Quad” on the first day of the fall semester at Texas State University in San Marcos on Aug. 24, 2020 Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

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Late momentum is building in the Texas Legislature to issue billions in bonds to fund higher education construction projects after the Senate Committee on Higher Education advanced a proposal on Thursday and Gov. Greg Abbott appeared to clear the way Friday for the issue to be passed in the final stretch of the Legislature’s special session.

But lawmakers must hurry if they are going to accomplish the goal. The special session must end by Tuesday.

The Senate bill’s Thursday passage out of committee came one day after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick asked Abbott to add the item to the agenda for the Legislature’s third special session. It now heads to the full Senate for approval.

Lawmakers can’t pass new laws during a special session that aren’t put on the agenda by the governor. Abbott added “legislation to improve higher education” to his agenda on Friday.

Before the governor issued the latest proclamation letter, lawmakers had been exploring other ways for tuition revenue bonds to fall within the parameters of Abbott’s third special session objectives, which also includes determining how to spend $16 billion in federal COVID-19 relief money.

Last week, the Senate included $325 million toward tuition revenue bonds as part of a separate bill divvying up the coronavirus funds, another Abbott priority. In that bill, they said the federal money is contingent on the Legislature passing a bill during the third special session “relating to the issuance of tuition revenue bonds.”

But by adding the higher education legislation to the agenda, Abbott made it easier for the Legislature to move the tuition revenue bond bill forward.

Lawmakers had already been working with universities to decide which construction projects would be included in a tuition revenue bond bill even before Patrick asked the governor to add it to his agenda.

Originally, Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, had filed a bill with $1.9 billion in higher education capital projects that focused solely on renovations. But on Thursday, Creighton moved to increase the amount of tuition revenue bonds allocated for campus construction to $3 billion through a committee substitute to his original bill.

Tuition revenue bonds are secured with tuition and other charges, but are paid back via state appropriations. The state hasn’t issued such bonds in six years.

Creighton said after listening to universities about the need for new construction as enrollment increases, lawmakers expanded the number of projects to include more at health institutions and regional public universities. Creighton told The Texas Tribune the bill could come up in front of the full Senate on Friday.

If the bill passes, some of the projects that could be funded include a $60 million new public health and education building for Texas A&M University-San Antonio and a new $60.8 million science building for the University of Texas at Tyler.

Some schools like Texas Southern University in Houston need urgent renovations. Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, said that in the past year, the historically Black university had to use generators for four months to keep the lights on, the aging electrical system is at risk of short-circuiting and heating and ventilation systems are so old that parts no longer exist. During the winter storm last February, the university suffered major water damage, too.

“If there’s ever a time, if there was ever a need, Texas Southern has that need and now’s the time,” Miles told lawmakers. “We can’t trust the air in the classrooms that we send our kids to. We can’t trust that when we turn the light switch on nothing’s going to explode. We can’t trust that when it rains a little bit, the roof’s not going to fall in.”

The bill includes $95 million for TSU renovations and upgrades.

For other colleges, rising student numbers mean schools of all sizes need to expand to meet the increased demand.

Mike Reeser, the chancellor of the Texas State Technical Colleges, a community college system that focuses on technical skills and trade programs, said his schools already require large industrial spaces for programs such as manufacturing or welding. With more demand, even more space is needed.

“We turned away 300 applicants the year before the pandemic in welding alone because we didn’t have enough room to fit them in the labs,” Reeser told lawmakers.

The technical college system which has campuses across the state is slated to receive $208 million in this bill, to help pay for new learning centers.

While committee members largely expressed support for the projects, Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said he was concerned Prairie View A&M University’s request for $60 million for a new academic student support building was not included in the latest version. He called on the Texas A&M University System to meet with lawmakers and try to find a way to include the historically Black university, which is part of that system.

For years, higher education leaders grew accustomed to the Legislature passing construction bills for their projects every other session. But the time between the bills passing, has widened over the past two decades. Before 2015, the state hadn’t passed a tuition revenue bond bill since 2006.

And even during the regular legislative session earlier this year, a $4.3 billion tuition revenue bond package failed to pass.

“There have been requests and demands from schools across the state,” Patrick said in the Wednesday letter to Abbott. “Both chambers stand willing to address the issue and provide the funds for tuition revenue bonds to our higher education institutions.”

Across the capitol, Rep. DeWayne Burns, R-Corpus Christi, filed a bill that would pour $4 billion in bonds into higher education capital projects.

Burns’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the version approved by the Senate higher education committee Thursday.

Disclosure: Texas Southern University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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