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Higher education leaders face uphill budget battle

By Ralph K.M. Haurwitz, Austin American-Statesman

Higher education leaders in Texas were hoping to recover considerable ground in the legislative session that began last week following cuts two years ago of nearly $1 billion in state funding.

They’re still expressing optimism, but they could face an uphill battle based on the 2014-15 budgets proposed in the state House and Senate. Under those bills, spending would decline again, albeit by much less.

The House bill would trim state funding for the two-year higher education budget to $14.8 billion from the $15.1 billion allocated for the current biennium, according to Legislative Budget Board documents. The Senate budget would cut spending to $14.9 billion.

Student financial aid spending would total $935.3 million for the biennium under the House and Senate bills. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board had requested $1.1 billion for financial aid.

The Texas Grant program, the state’s main aid program, would receive $559.5 million, more than half of the aid outlay, under the bills. That’s the same amount that was appropriated for the current budget, although actual spending was $20 million higher thanks to a donation.

The state would be able to serve all returning students eligible for a Texas Grant under the current proposals. But fewer than 1 in 5 new, eligible students would get a grant based on the coordinating board’s preliminary estimates, said agency spokesman Dominic Chavez. The number of financially needy students is growing, he said.

“We will be asking for $128 million in additional funding for Texas Grants,” Chavez said. “That’ll be a very high priority, if not the highest priority, as we get into formal budget discussions.”

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