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Texas A&M System chancellor optimistic about upcoming legislation

By Allen Reed, The Bryan-College Station Eagle

The Texas A&M University System's top administrators are tracking nearly 1,500 bills this legislative session that could restore some higher education funding, help pay for research, further regulate regent appointments and legalize firearms inside of university classrooms.

"Times are tough, but they're an awful lot better than they were last time," A&M System Chancellor John Sharp told The Eagle. "Part of what we need to be about in higher education is pointing out the good things we do and how our research so dramatically affects the economy in the state of Texas."

A top priority for Sharp, along with almost all higher education advocates, is restoring base funding that was cut nearly $1 billion last session. A&M saw its funding decline by about $72 million.

Guy Diedrich, vice chancellor for federal and state relations for the A&M system, said it's still unclear how much A&M or other institutions will receive, but noted the House budget restores $89 million in base funding and the Senate budget restores $169 million.

"I think there's a good possibility to probably not get it all back at one time but to make some significant progress to get formula funding restored," said Sharp, who has decades of experience navigating the halls of the Texas Capitol.

Diedrich called Sharp, former A&M classmate of Gov. Rick Perry, the "maestro" of A&M's legislative efforts. The two lead a team of about 20 people who monitor bills and help educate lawmakers, although the number of staffers is bolstered during sessions.

"We don't take positions on bills," Diedrich said. "We are not advocates. We are providers of information at the request of members."

The system is tracking 1,492 bills, he said, but that number fluctuates daily as bills are withdrawn or staffers add them to the watch list. The deadline for filing bills was March 8.

In addition to restoring base funding, Sharp said, he's optimistic about tuition revenue bond proposals, such as that for funding for a Level 3 biosafety facility.

The Aggies seek approximately $53 million in state support for an $80 million research and diagnostic facility to test and evaluate countermeasures for infectious diseases. The Level Three biosafety designation denotes precautions required of the building to isolate dangerous biological agents and is the second-highest ranking. There are only three such facilities in the nation, none of which are in Texas.

The university has biosafety facilities for smaller animals, such as mice, but nothing that could handle larger animals, such as cattle or horses.

A&M officials are optimistic about securing bond monies, despite the Legislature's last approving them in 2006.

"Most of our revenue bonds are looking real good -- better than expected," Sharp said.

Another focal point for Sharp is restoring funding to the state's Competitive Knowledge Fund for research. In 2011, the Legislature cut a matching grant of $1 million per every $10 million in external research funding by the universities to $700,000. The administrators hope to restore that amount to $1 million.

"Part of looking at it is restructuring that a bit," Sharp said. "Legislators are looking at separate funds for A&M and Texas ... That debate is going good. The worst that happens is we get additional funding, the best is we have separate funds for flagships."

The Senate has added $26 million to the fund and the House $59 million, Diedrich said.

The outsourcing of janitorial, maintenance and landscaping across the A&M system has garnered positive feedback from legislators, Sharp said. He said the lawmakers mostly see eye-to-eye on the privatization, and want funding directed into teaching and research. He credited the move, in part, to the warmer reception from lawmakers this session.

"I think they like what we're doing here, and we're doing everything we can to save money for the core mission," Sharp said. "There might be a university system that has better relationships in the Legislature, but I don't think so. We have a lot of friends, and I think we have a chance to restore funding. I think they believe us when we say we'll spend it wisely and be good stewards of it."

Gerry Griffin, a founding member of the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a group that advocates for higher ed improvements, has been closely tracking Senate Bill 15, which would make the governor-appointed university regents more accountable to the Legislature. Specifically, "any appointee who is unconfirmed by the Senate is prohibited from voting on any budgetary or personnel matter related to system administration or institutions of higher education."

The coalition, Griffin said, has not taken a stance for or against the bill. He called for more clarity and transparency overall.

"Let's make sure we know what the regents' roles are and what the regents' roles aren't, and let's go from there," said Griffin, an Aggie alumnus, former director of the Johnson Space Center and a flight director during the Apollo 13 mission.

Griffin lauded the special House-Senate oversight committee, which was renewed this session to hold public hearings regarding higher ed institutions.

"I applaud the lieutenant governor and the speaker on reviewing the joint-oversight role," Griffin said. "I think that's how we'll get at what regents should do and shouldn't do."

One of the most important issues for faculty are the measures to allow handguns into classrooms, said A&M faculty senate speaker-elect Walter Daugherity.

Texas is one of 21 states that ban concealed weapons on campus. It's a felony under state law. Five states have provisions that allow concealed carry on campus -- Colorado, Mississippi, Oregon, Utah and Wisconsin -- and legislation is pending in two states.

In Texas, concealed weapons are only banned in university buildings or arenas, and can be carried in open areas, walkways and parking lots. The Texas Penal Code allows individual universities to permit concealed weapons, but no public university in the state has done so.

Additionally, the A&M student conduct code prohibits possession of all firearms on university premises or at any university-sponsored activity.

The A&M student government passed a resolution that supports allowing concealed-carry permit holders to bring their weapons into university classrooms, and some students have traveled to Austin to lobby for the right.

However, Mary Aldridge Dean, executive director of the Texas Faculty Association, said the vast majority of university professors oppose the measures, largely because of safety concerns regarding emotional students.

Dean addressed the proposal at a committee meeting Thursday at the Capitol. The association, she said, staunchly opposes handguns in classrooms, as do almost all of its members.

She said she was concerned that allowing handguns into classrooms could create a class system on campuses between the students who can and cannot afford to arm themselves. She also said the move could scare away distinguished professors who would otherwise be interested in teaching at a Texas university.

"The rest of the country is watching this and they're also thinking about their children," Dean said. "The unfortunate part is we lose some of the best candidates because they have other options. I don't want Texas, over time, getting left with the leftovers."

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