Texas public university leaders are crossing their fingers that the Legislature will pass a bill this year that would open up billions of dollars of funding for construction of new and existing campus buildings.
Many of the projects named in the bill would add health care education and research infrastructure as the state continues to face a shortage of physicians and nurses amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Officials say the pandemic has exacerbated the needs for these construction projects that will expand public health education.
House Bill 1530, which would authorize the state to issue $4.3 billion in bonds to fund the infrastructure projects, heads to the Senate for approval after the Texas House passed it last week.
If passed by the Texas Senate and signed into law, it would send more than $150 million collectively for construction of new public health education buildings at Texas A&M University in San Antonio and at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, $88 million for a health professions building at Texas State University in Round Rock and $163 million for a dental school building at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center at El Paso, among other projects.
“[Health care workers are] a growing need as our boomers age,” said Rep. Jim Murphy, R-Houston, who sponsored the bill and chairs the House Higher Education Committee. “It’s a wonderful career opportunity as the field grows. And we aren’t producing nearly enough of the folks we need in that part of the economy.”
Some of the projects included were carried over from a failed bill from the last legislative session that stalled in a Senate committee. The state has not passed a tuition revenue bond package funding higher education construction since 2015.
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.
On the House floor last week, Murphy said the Texas State University System is 1.4 million square feet short of how big it should be, the Texas A&M system is 2.3 million square feet short of space and the UT system has 3 million square feet less than needed to meet the needs of its growing student populations.
“The needs are very large today, much less a couple years from now,” Murphy said.
It would also include $270 million for construction of three buildings within the planned Texas Medical Center’s research campus in Houston. The Texas A&M Health Science Center, UT Health Science Center at Houston and University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center would each get $90 million to construct their own building on the 37-acre campus.
In a statement, Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp said the project was vital, calling it “the next generation’s medical center.”
He said the bonds also help the system address rapid student enrollment, which increased systemwide by nearly 30,000 students between 2011 and 2019.
The bill also includes up to $108 million to Texas Woman’s University in Denton for its own health sciences center. A TWU university spokesperson said the new center would allow the university to expand enrollment in nursing, physical therapy and occupational therapy.
“The new facility would boost the university’s focus on rural health and tele-health initiatives, areas that also have high need in Texas,” said Matthew Flores, with TWU.
Not all of the money is for new construction. Rep. Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston, said the funding included for Texas Southern University, a historically Black university, is an “emergency item” intended to repair old buildings.
“I wish these were for future projects or for the vision, the grandiosity of what Texas Southern can be,” Johnson told The Texas Tribune. “But this is truly just maintaining buildings or just simply constructing buildings that are just kind of hanging on by hope and a prayer.”
The bill includes $23 million to renovate Texas Southern’s Samuel M. Nabrit Science Center, which was heavily damaged during the February freeze due to burst water pipes, and $59 million for construction of a new Lanier East residence hall, built in the 1950s.
While many universities received less money than what they requested for construction projects, House lawmakers approved an amendment that would fully fund the $60 million request from Prairie View A&M University, another HBCU, for a new teaching and academic student support services building.
Johnson, who authored the amendment, said it was key to fully fund the project at a university that is serving some of Texas’ most underserved communities, many of whom are the first in their family to attend college and need extra support.
Disclosure: MD Anderson Cancer Center, Texas Southern University – Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs, Texas Tech University and Texas State University System have been financial supporters 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
Credit: by Kate McGee, Texas Tribune