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Floor Pass

Detail of Texas Capitol dome.

The Lead:

Well, kids, we’ve reached sine die—the 140th, and last, day of the 83rd Legislature’s regular session. (The circus is apparently staying in town for an immediate special session on redistricting, but more on that in a minute.)

First, as usual, the 139th day saw frenetic lawmaking. The House and Senate passed all the major bills on their calendars yesterday—and even wrapped up at a decent hour—including the budget and all its related bills, HB 500 which enacts hundreds of millions in tax cuts for business, a pretty decent ethics reform, and two Medicaid reform bills.

There will be many headlines from this session: undoing some cuts from 2011, tapping the rainy day fund for water projects, passing $1.4 billion in tax cuts without fulling restoring the 2011 reductions to public schools.

What we’ll remember about this session in the year’s to come will be Medicaid expansion—or lack thereof.

It had been clear for weeks (and perhaps months) that Medicaid expansion was dead at the Capitol. But yesterday lawmakers drove the point home, passing a bill that bans Medicaid expansion in Texas.

The Lege on Sunday sent the governor SB 7, a Medicaid reform bill. The measure includes an amendment tacked on by Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano) that forbids the state from expanding Medicaid under Obamacare. That eliminates even the smallest chance that the Health and Human Services Commission would negotiate a “Texas solution” on Medicaid. It gave Republicans a chance to vote against a key provision of the national health reform law they hate so much.

But it means Texas will turn away an estimated $100 billion—yes, $100 billion—in federal funds over nine years that will now go to other states. Refusing Medicaid will deny health coverage to roughly 1.5 million Texans.

Gov. Rick Perry may well have sacrificed the chance expand health coverage to millions—and reap the economic boon of $100 billion flowing into the state—for presidential ambitions that few pundits think are realistic. That decision—and the Legislature’s choice to go along with it—will be remembered and debated for years to come.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. Hey, they passed a budget. Good on them. Details from the Observer here.

2. The Lege also enacted two major education reform bills that will expand charter schools and reduce the number of high-stakes tests. The record vote in the House on the testing bill was unanimous—a rare sight indeed. The Observer‘s Patrick Michels has more.

3. HB 500, which exempts hundreds of millions from the franchise tax, avoided a filibuster threat from Sen. Rodney Ellis and is headed to the governor. The Statesman has more.

4. The Tribune has a roundup of the transparency bills the Lege passed and finds the session lacking. They did pass the sunset bill for the Texas Ethics Commission yesterday that includes a few good reforms such as forbiding retiring lawmakers from spending their campaign accounts for two years after they leave the Lege.

5. Don’t go on vacation yet. The Houston Chronicle notes that a special session on redistricting could be imminent.

Line of the Day:

“The majority still refuses to take responsibility for their actions in 2011. Instead, even with lawsuits looming that have determined the State of Texas is not meeting its constitutional obligation, they’re allowing billions of our tax dollars to sit unused rather than investing it in the future of our children and this state.” —Rep. Abel Herrero on budget, which doesn’t fully restore cuts to public schools and would leave more than $8 billion in the rainy day fund.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. Those correcting amendments. There’s not supposed to be any substantive lawmaking today—just correcting minor mistakes—but every now and then an industrious lobbyist tries to sneak something through.

2. The parties.

3. The end of the Hot List. We don’t produce the Hot List during special sessions, so this is our last one until 2015. Happy Sine Die!

The session’s two biggest school reform bills, one from each chamber, have danced around the House and Senate in the session’s closing days—a stalemate that broke Sunday night as both bills passed each chamber around the same time.

Members of the lower chamber began with their own House Bill 5, which reduces the required high school tests from 15 to 5, creates a new set of graduation plans for high schoolers, and lets the state rate its schools on an “A to F” scale. The final version of the bill is closer to the House’s proposal than the one passed by the Senate.

Its author, House Public Education Chair Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) urged a quick finish for one of the session’s centerpiece bills, and one that saw hours of debate on the House floor in March. “Let’s just vote it,” he said tonight.

Rep. Mark Strama—who voted against HB 5 when it passed the House—spoke in favor of the bill this time, devoting his final speech on the House floor to the proper role of testing in education policy. (He’s announced he won’t seek reelection.)

“HB 5 is an improvement over current law,” Strama said, but he defended the standardized testing movement of the last 20 years, crediting it with helping African-American and Hispanic students to close the “achievement gap” with Anglo students. “The problem with testing in Texas was the stakes we had attached to those tests,” he said.

Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) said he’d vote for the bill too, despite his concern that that it doesn’t go far enough to help “the kids that are going to be on the bottom, I don’t care which test you give. … If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we will keep getting what we’ve been getting.”

The House voted unanimously in favor of the bill.

Senate Bill 2, which would let the state approve around 100 new charter school operators in the next six years, had a less certain fate in the House, where charter expansion bills have died in the last two sessions.

In addition to the new charters, SB 2 moves some authority over the charter application process from the State Board of Education to the education commissioner; makes it easier to close low-performing charters; and allows school boards to turn low-performing campuses into charters.

Debate was quick, with the most critical questions from Fort Worth-area Democrats Lon Burnam and Chris Turner.

Burnam grilled Aycock, the bill’s House sponsor, on the exemptions from class size limits and disciplinary program requirements that in-district charter schools would get. Turner noted it would take just one year of low performance before a campus could be turned to an in-district charter.

That bill passed 105 to 41, with no votes from a handful of Republicans along with Democrats. The Senate passed SB 2 without debate, on a 28-3 vote.

The Senate wrapped up the night’s major school bills, taking up HB 5 just after 10 p.m. and approving it unanimously after a speech by Senate Education Chair Dan Patrick (R-Houston). Patrick said he wore his wedding tie tonight, one of the few times he’s ever put it on, because tonight was such a special night.

“It’s a great night for the future of students [and] parents,” he said, before senators voted for the bill and took turns hugging him beside his desk.
State Rep. David Simpson speaks to the Texas House.
Patrick Michels
Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview)

The end of the regular session draws near, and the House is one step closer to sealing the state’s budget for the next two years. With a vote of 110 ayes and 29 nays Sunday afternoon, the House passed House Bill 1025, a general appropriations bill that is necessary to the budget. The fight isn’t over yet: The House still needs to pass Senate Bill 1 tonight too.

HB 1025, in its final form, includes disaster recovery relief, $2 billion for the state water plan, and $200 million for the Permanent School Fund, among others.

Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview), who is opposed to the budget package, attempted to shoot down HB 1025 by calling two points of order on the bill. Both were overruled. Rep. John Otto (R-Dayton) chastised Simpson for attempting to derail a bill when, he said, it’s vital to passing the budget.

“We get to a point in time—tomorrow, it’s sine die. This bill is just as important as SB 1. … I just think that this is a very important bill and we need to think about if we’re going to fund the priorities of this state,” he said.

House Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie) put a little fear of God in the representatives before the vote, speaking on how 1025 is necessary to help pay for such state needs as relief from natural disasters.

“Let me make it very clear: If we don’t get 100 votes, we will not be able to pay for our wildfires. We cannot do our disaster recovery. We can’t help the city of West after the explosion they had. We can’t pay for water. There’s a whole lot in this bill that we’re paying for, but we need 100 votes.”

Pitts’ vision of a statewide armageddon if HB 1025 should fail seemed to do the trick. With his words fresh in mind—and with House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) casting a rare vote for the bill from the dais—representatives overwhelmingly passed the bill.

As of this writing, the House had moved on to debate on Senate Bill 1—we’ll update this post after lawmakers vote. —Emily Mathis

Update at 7:40: The House just passed the last of the remaining budget bills, SB 1. Lawmakers only debated the budget briefly, but Simpson, once again, accounted for most of the drama.

After trying to derail the bill with a few more unsuccessful points of order, Simpson stood for a passionate speech against the budget reminiscent of his remarks late last session, complaining about the “political magicians” in the Capitol and the “accounting ingenuity” by which they keep the general public out of the budget process.

He spoke specifically about $500 million for CPRIT, the scandalized state cancer research fund, which was added into the budget in conference committee. Most Texans could never see the bill before their lawmakers voted, he said, because last-minute details of the budget bill were only available on the Capitol’s internal document system.

“I daresay that 25 million people are not here in the Capitol,” Simpson said.

“That’s why they send you here, Dave!” Rep. Larry Philips (R-Sherman) heckled from his desk in the back of the chamber.

“Don’t put your sumer vacation above doing what is right,” Simpson urged. “This is not a good budget though there is good in it.”

Voting began as soon as Simpson finished his speech—and ended before he could reach his desk. Walking briskly, he tried in vain to signal to his deskmate Ron Simmons (R-Carrollton) to vote for him, and arrived just in time to hit the button himself, just after voting closed. Slamming books onto his desk, he walked back up and called Speaker Straus down from the dais to share some angry words.

It was the only drama in the House’s budget debate, as most lawmakers seemed light-hearted and relaxed on the next-to-last day of the session. Lawmakers’ kids played on their parents laptops or raced toy cars on the House floor. Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth) walked the floor with his iPad, asking if anyone knew who was behind the Fake Joe Straus Twitter account. “I just don’t see how you can be doing something like that,” he said. “I’m sure somebody’ll find out.”

Rep. John Otto noted SB 1 includes $5.2 billion more for schools over the current budget, and focuses the spending increase on the state’s poorest districts. Rep. Abel Herrero (D-Robstown) reminded Otto that the Legislature cut more from education in 2011 than it would replace in SB1.

Herrero was one of 29 votes against the bill, along with 28 conservative Republicans. The Senate passed its last piece of the budget deal earlier Sunday, so the budget heads to Gov. Rick Perry next. —Patrick Michels

Texas State Capitol in Austin, Tex.

The Lead:

It’s the penultimate day of the session, and lawmakers have much left to do. The House still must pass the budget and approve two supporting measures—HB 1025 and SJR 1—key to the budget deal.

Meanwhile yesterday’s developments weren’t kind to the cause of transparency in politics. As the Observer‘s Olivia Messer writes, Gov. Rick Perry’ vetoed a bill that would have required disclosure of dark money. The bill, SB 346, would have forced politically active nonprofits to make public who was donating the money for their political activities.

The veto wasn’t unexpected. The bill had been primarily aimed at Michael Quinn Sullivan and his tea party group Empower Texans, which in recent elections has been marshaling funds in its nonprofit corporation, a 501(c)(4), and using the money to attack Republicans they view as insufficiently conservative, including Speaker Joe Straus and members of his leadership team. By spending through its nonprofit (instead of its PAC), the group doesn’t have to disclose where the money comes from. This is often referred to as “dark money.” SB 346 would have changed that. But MQS, as he’s often called, is close to the governor’s office, so hence the veto.

Supporters of disclosure even saw their backup plan foiled. Anticipating a veto, they had attached the disclosure provisions in SB 346 to another bill—the measure reauthorizing the Texas Ethics Commission. But, as Quorum Report noted, a conference committee yesterday—at about the same time Perry was releasing his veto statement—stripped the disclosure language from the Ethics Commission bill. So much for that.

With one day left in the session, it looks likely that we’ll endure another campaign cycle with some political nonprofits influencing elections without disclosing their funders. Good times.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. The Senate passed SB 21, requiring drug tests for some applicants for unemployment benefits. The Statesman has more details. Democrats had managed to defeat a separate bill requiring drug tests for welfare applicants. Unemployed Texans weren’t so lucky. The bill now goes to the governor, who’s expected to sign it.

2. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports on efforts to save the Texas Railroad Commission and its oversight of oil and gas drilling. Rep. Dennis Bonnen, employing his well-known light touch, told the paper that the commission had opposed his sunset bill reauthorizing the commission. “I take that as a clear sign that they’re not interested in the agency continuing.” Ah, sarcasm, the grumpy man’s wit.

3.  Lawmakers reached a deal on the System Benefit Fund, which is supposed to help low-income families with their electricity bills, though the Lege has diverted the money to other purposes in recent sessions. The deal, endorsed by Rep. Sylvester Turner, will ensure that low-income families get help on their bills. Quorum Report has details.

Line of the Day:

“This is a sad day for integrity and transparency in Texas. Governor Perry’s veto of SB 346 legalizes money laundering in Texas elections. The Governor’s veto is ironic since money laundering is illegal in other endeavors.” —Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) in a statement.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. The clock. All substantive bills must pass by midnight. Day 140 is usually reserved for resolutions and correcting amendments fixing non-substantive mistakes. It requires super-majorities to do any legislating tomorrow. It’s possible, but not easy. So, today’s the day to get things done.

2. The budget. The Senate passed the budget yesterday. The House must pass SB 1, HB 1025 and SJR 1 or a special session is guaranteed.

2. A 30-day special may well happen anyway. Redistricting, the Railroad Commission sunset bill, tax cuts, and any number of other issues could lead the governor to call a special session. We’ve learned never to predict special sessions one way or the other. Gov. Perry has the sole authority to decide when and why to call the Lege into special session. That’s comforting, ain’t it?

Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo)

Gov. Rick Perry vetoed his first set of bills on Saturday afternoon, including Senate Bill 346, Sen. Kel Seliger’s “dark money” disclosure bill, which would have shed light on funding for some political nonprofit groups.

“While regulation is necessary in the administration of Texas political finance laws,” Perry said in a statement, “no regulation is tolerable that puts anyone’s participation at risk or that can be used by any government, organization or individual to intimidate those who choose to participate in our process through financial means.”

“This is a sad day for integrity and transparency in Texas. Governor Perry’s veto of SB 346 legalizes money laundering in Texas elections,” Seliger (R-Amarillo) said in a statement. “The Governor’s veto is ironic since money laundering is illegal in other endeavors.”

“As other states have stepped forward to ban election money laundering by dark money 501c4 non-profit corporations, it is embarrassing that the Lone Star state is now an official safe haven for political money launderers,” he continued.

Among the groups that would have been required to disclose their donors is Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, headed by the brash tight-spending purist Michael Quinn Sullivan. After the Senate quietly passed the bill last month, Sen. Dan Patrick went to great lengths trying to recall it, saying he hadn’t realized what the bill would do. The House refused to let the Senate have HB 346 back, though, and passed it directly to Perry’s desk.

Tea party groups including Houston’s King Street Patriots have issued an “urgent call to action” in recent days, asking supporters to call Perry and ask him to veto the “sleeper bill,” saying it would “make lobbyists of anyone who goes to Austin to advocate for good government if they are associated, even as a volunteer, with an organization.”

Seliger’s take, of course, is much different.

After the news reached the Senate floor Saturday, a reporter asked Seliger, “Did Quinn Sullivan win here?”

“No, you never really win when you’re trying to conceal money laundering,” he replied.

Seliger said that he would not fight to override the governor’s veto before the session ends, which would require a two-thirds vote. “There doesn’t seem to be real strong support for it,” he said. “Sometimes courageous is tough to find,” he said.

Seliger said he would try to override the veto during a special session if one is called, though.

Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands)
Patrick Michels
Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands)

In a surprisingly quick move, the Senate passed SB 1—the $196.95 billion state budget for the next two years—late Saturday afternoon on a 27-4 vote, without any vocal opposition from conservative members voting against it.

The budget spends $94.6 billion from general revenue, an 8.3 percent increase over the current fiscal biennium.

“The state budget reflects our commitment to conservatism by cutting approximately $1.3 billion in taxes,” Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said in a statement.

Dean of the Senate John Whitmire (D-Houston), spoke in favor of the bill. “All 31 districts have been represented in this document. I think it’s a document that’s reasonable, and one that will serve this state for the next two years,” he said.

Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams reflected on the product of his first session as lead budget author, and angry emails he’s received calling him “socialist” for spending more than last session’s meager budget. “I find that kind of amusing, actually,” he said.

Conservative Greenville Republican Sen. Bob Deuell also spoke on behalf of the budget, calling supporters of family planning budget cuts “short-sighted.” Deuell has proposed and supported anti-choice bills this session, but was vocal about the need for family planning funding. “There are people who don’t understand when you don’t fund family planning, you’re going to end up with more unwanted pregnancies, people on welfare, abortions.”

Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth)—who derailed the budget process at the tail-end of the 2011 session as a protest over cuts to education—also spoke in favor of the new budget bill.

“For those that say that this is an excessive budget … I would just take a moment to remind us all of the items for which Texas is known, but that not a single person on this floor would say that we are proud of. We know that we are dramatically underfunding our infrastructure. And, as Senator Duncan pointed out, with the tremendous growth that we have, while that’s been wonderful for our economy, in some ways, it’s been tremendous stress on us as well,” she said. “This is … a product that we should all be proud of.”

Tea party Senators Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury), Ken Paxton (R-McKinney), Dan Patrick (R-Houston) and Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) all voted against the budget, but none spoke against it this afternoon.

The House, which wrapped up a light day of business earlier, will take up SB1 on Sunday afternoon along with other major bills. Lawmakers will also need to pass a handful of other supplemental budget bills that round out a delicate deal between Republicans and Democrats.

Texas State Capitol in Austin, Tex.
Patrick Michels

The Lead:

The regular session ends on Monday, and the big question at the Capitol is: Will there be a special session?

But the more immediate question is: Will there be a budget? On Thursday, the House rejected a new version of HB 1025, a supplemental spending bill that’s critical to the budget deal. Among many other things, the bill allocates $200 million for schools. The Senate passed the bill on Wednesday with some changes, including one added by Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams that ties the schools funding to a provision that would return to taxpayers money that had been intended to help poor families with electric bills. The Dallas Morning News has more details.

That sets up a conference committee between the Senate and House that will have to work fast to reach a deal to save the budget in the regular session. Good times.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. Senate and House negotiators reached a backroom deal yesterday on two education bills, the Texas Tribune reports. The bills—HB 5 and SB 2—would expand the state’s number of charter schools and reduce the number of standardized tests.

2. The Boy Scouts of America announced yesterday it would reverse its policy and allow gay scouts. Many across the country are hailing the decision as a huge step forward for gay rights, but Gov. Perry didn’t see it that way. He issued a statement saying he is “greatly disappointed with this decision.”

3. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is calling for a special session to pass conservative bills on abortion, guns and drug tests for welfare applicants, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Line of the Day:

“The Boys Scouts of America has been built upon the values of faith and family for more than 100 years and today’s decision contradicts generations of tradition in the name of political correctness.” – Gov. Rick Perry, on the Boy Scouts of America’s decision yesterday to end a ban on gay members.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. We’ll be keeping an eye on both chambers, which will churn through bills passed by both chambers and conference committee reports.

2. The budget. Can the House and Senate settle their differences on HB 1025 before Sunday’s final midnight deadline?

The Lead:

The House and Senate spent most of yesterday at a standoff, waiting for the other to budge on two major pieces of legislation that are key to the state budget. Senate Finance Chair Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) broke the impasse by introducing House Bill 1025, which is the supplemental spending bill. The House previously supported the bill when it included $200 million in additional spending for education, but Gov. Rick Perry got involved and helped derail the agreement when he told the Senate too much money was allotted to education.

That led to a tense few days between the House and Senate. But everyone apparently came to their senses, and Williams proposed a bill accepted, even lauded, by his Democratic counterparts last night. Under the plan, the basic education allotment per-student-spending would reach $5,040 in 2015, which Williams claimed would be the highest ever.

As the Senate was passing HB 1025, the House finally took up Senate Joint Resolution 1 that it was holding hostage to get the $200 million for schools under HB 1025. The House quickly approved the resolution that asks voters to OK creating the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas, which would distribute $2 billion for water infrastructure projects under HB 1025. With both bills passed, the budget deal can go forward.

Yesterday’s Headlines:

1. Rep. Craig Eiland (D-Galveston) tearfully told the House that he wouldn’t seek reelection to spend more time with his family, as the Texas Tribune reports.

2. Democrats successfully killed all abortion-related bills this session before they got to the House or Senate floors this session, writes the San Antonio Express News.

3. Protestors in favor of Medicaid expansion interrupted a speech yesterday by Gov. Perry who responded that he would meet with them at his office. The Tribune writes that the 15-minute meeting didn’t go far.

4. The Observer’s Beth Cortez-Neavel documents the impact of the split between UT-Brownsville and Texas Southmost College. Hundreds of employees lost their jobs.

Line of the Day:

“I’ve had committee dinners since I’ve been here for seven terms. Lobby pays. They follow rules. Everybody knows up front. And we even post it, so we are all in compliance.” –Rep. Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi) told the Texas Tribune about a dinner bill for 140 people that totaled $22,241.03. Sorry we missed that one.

What We’re Watching Today:

1. With several deadlines passed, the House and Senate will now focus on conference committee reports and bills passed by both chambers.

Rep. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock)
Rep. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock) mounted an unsuccessful attempt to cap future spending on the state water plan implementation fund at $2 billion.

After a day of waiting and, finally, a short floor debate, the House overwhelmingly approved a resolution creating a fund to implement the state water plan Wednesday evening, 130-16.

Senate Joint Resolution 1 had been one of two measures at the heart of a stalemate with the Senate, as each chamber waited on the other to pass bills crucial to the budget. Minutes after the Senate finally took up House Bill 1025, which includes $2 billion for water planning, the House began considering SJR 1, which asks voters to approve creating the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas, which would get that $2 billion.

Rep. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock) tried to add an amendment capping contributions to the fund at $2 billion.

“All I’m saying is, we’ve been told $2 billion is the number, they’re saying $2 billion is all we need to start up the infrastructure,” said Perry. “Let’s just make that part of the process and say that’s all we’re going to do.”

Opponents argued that placing a constitutional cap on water spending is illogical, since it wouldn’t account for population growth and growing water needs.

“Establishing a [cap] of $2 billion is based on the assumption that going forward, nothing is going to change in our economy, in our demographics, in our environmental water needs,” said Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio).

Most representatives agreed, and the amendment was shot down.

Members were relaxed as they observed the debate from their desks—in the end, there was little doubt lawmakers would approve the resolution. “Whoever votes against this gets the water turned off in their office,” joked Rep. Tony Dale (R-Cedar Park) from his seat.

Raucous applause and cheers broke out as votes for the resolution lit up the board in the House chamber. It’ll be up to voters in November to decide whether to create the fund for water planning.

In Brownsville, Two Colleges Split and a Community Suffers

The separation of UT-Brownsville and Texas Southmost College leads to hundreds of layoffs.
A water tower marked for UT-Brownsville and Texas Southmost College
Beth Cortez-Neavel
This water tower is among the facilities UT-Brownsville and Texas Southmost College will need to sort out as they split. See details of the split in a timeline below the story.

Karen Fuss-Sommer came to Brownsville in the 1980s for a nursing job. Over the years she made friends in the community, raised two daughters as a single parent and helped build the University of Texas at Brownsville’s nursing program. Eventually she was granted tenure, and if everything had gone as planned, she says, she could have retired in 2017.

But the end to Fuss-Sommer‘s and many others’ tenures at UT-Brownsville wasn’t quick and unexpected. Fuss-Sommer, now 50, is one of the hundreds of many faculty members at UT-Brownsville and Texas Southmost College losing their jobs as the schools spit up after a 20-year partnership. Their once-groundbreaking alliance, the only one of its kind in the nation between a community college and a state-funded university, is slated to end August 31, 2015.

For Fuss-Sommer, the loss of her job after two decades is hard to comprehend. “I’m a dedicated employee, have been a dedicated faculty member of our institution from the day I stepped on that campus, and this is how it ends for me,” she says.

At the same time, the state is creating a new super-school for the Rio Grande Valley, combining UT-Brownsville with UT-Pan American in nearby Edinburg. With a new medical school and far more state funding, the new university is ushering in an exciting time for higher education in the Valley—unless you’re one of the hundreds laid off.

Texas Southmost College, a junior college founded in 1926, struck up its partnership with the UT System in 1991. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, or MALDEF, had sued the state, arguing that Texas wasn’t spending enough on higher education in South Texas and was discriminating against minority students. The lawsuit was unsuccessful, but the 72nd Legislature responded to the pressure by forming UT-Brownsville in conjunction with TSC.

The partnership allowed UT-Brownsville to use TSC’s buildings, while the UT System paid rent. The partnership combined the community college’s local tax revenue with state funding—more money than either school could raise on its own. TSC’s locally elected trustees could still give input, but all the faculty and staff went on the UT System’s payroll.

Students in the Valley, where 35 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, got a university education for the lowest tuition in the UT System and still enjoyed open enrollment for any student with a high school diploma or a GED, which is normally only available through community colleges in Texas.

“The Valley needed that,” UT-Brownsville President Juliet Garcia says today. “We saw students expand their own horizons.”

This marriage of a community college and a state-funded university was the only one of its kind in the nation. The way their relationship has unraveled, it’s no wonder why.

Trouble surfaced in 2009, when UT-Brownsville and TSC asked the Legislature for $10 million to help UT-Brownsville make its rent payments to TSC. The Legislature kicked the problem back, asking the UT System and the TSC Board of Trustees to figure out how to pay for the rent. But the rent money was just the latest in a series of clashes between the two institutions. In November 2010, the UT Regents voted to dissolve the partnership, saying the alliance had become “untenable.” UT-Brownsville President Garcia says that the joint governance of two schools under one roof contributed to the strain.

The once-groundbreaking partnership is slated to end August 31, 2015, the date when both schools could earn separate accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Garcia announced the divorce at a campus meeting in November 2011. She says the break-up felt like a split in the community, with residents choosing sides. But she says the split is a “natural progression” for higher education in the Valley.

Joe Molina, editor of The Collegian, the campus newspaper, says the whole community was upset. He says students wondered whether they had enough credits to stay at UT-Brownsville, or would be forced to enroll at TSC. Faculty and staff began speculating about what the split would mean for their jobs. Some began looking for work elsewhere.

Karen Fuss-Sommer is among the tenured faculty members who fought UT-Brownsville's layoff notices.
Beth Cortez-Neavel
Karen Fuss-Sommer is among the tenured faculty members who fought UT-Brownsville’s layoff notices.

Some, like Fuss-Sommer, could at least fall back on a unique sort of protection as part of a group known as “the 92ers,” faculty hired in the year before the merger in 1992. The administration has offered special job protection to the 92ers: if the two schools ever broke up, the 92ers were guaranteed a similar job at TSC after the split. 

UT-Brownsville developed a plan to downsize its staff to match an enrollment that declined from 15,000 students in 2011 to 7,000 by the start of 2013. “We knew it had to happen,” Garcia says. “But none of us … were expert in how to make it work in an equitable way.”

Early in March 2012, UT-Brownsville formed review committees to determine which faculty would stay with the school, and which would be let go. The committees ranked faculty based on advanced degrees or tenure status. Teachers at the bottom of the list got cut. The goal was to create an objective rubric for the type of faculty each department wanted to keep—but some departments were so small, it was obvious who would lose their jobs. Fuss-Sommer, whose layoff came in that second round, calls it “a perfect opportunity to get rid of people you don’t like.”

Garcia says the committees were also populated to include both tenured and non-tenured faculty, to avoid subjectivity. “There was no way for any one person to tilt the result,” she says.

The layoffs began in late March 2012, with 30 adjunct professors who taught trade courses like air conditioning or car maintenance. At the end of April, Fuss-Sommer and 104 other faculty members—nearly a fifth of the school’s 518 total faculty—were also let go. Of those laid off, 53 were tenured.

Some faculty retired or left for other jobs before the final layoff notice. Others, like Fuss-Sommer, fought back.

First she appealed her termination, arguing that even after the split UT-Brownsville would still have a nursing college and would need an assistant dean. She asked why the administration laid her off but kept untenured, less experienced faculty in her department. She said administrators hadn’t shown the “good cause” required to fire her now that she had tenure.

In July, she received a final notice asking her to sign a severance deal: give up her tenure and her right to sue UTB or the UT System and waived all her grievances, she would get an eighth of her salary as severance pay.

Fuss-Sommer refused to sign the severance deal. Instead, she went to her union lawyer, Russell Ramirez, with the Texas Faculty Association and the Texas State Teachers Association. She and Ramirez—who is also representing three others similarly laid off by UT-Brownsville—are looking into suing the school over its handling of the layoffs.

“There’s no consistency to it,” Ramirez says. “Some people are staying without Ph.D.s and other people aren’t. … It really looks like cronyism to me, where they’re just picking all of the people that they want or they don’t want.”

Ramirez calls it a “really baroque system” developed by UT-Brownsville Provost Alan Artibise to “shield what he’s really doing, which is firing tenured professors.”

Another laid-off tenured faculty member, English professor Susan Mills, sued the school in April, contending the layoffs were part of the administration’s broader attack on tenure rights.

“Downsizing is a Myth,” Mills’ lawsuit argues. “If the downsizing of UT-B were a reality, UT-B would not be hiring faculty at the same time it is releasing nearly ninety faithful educators. … The real reason is financial exigency.”

So far, Ramirez has also filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, citing “a disparate impact on people who are over 40,” he says. The EEOC told Ramirez it would assign staff to investigate his allegations of ageism and cronyism, which he hopes will help him file a federal lawsuit. Ramirez estimates that it will be years before Fuss-Sommer and the other dismissed faculty could make their case in court.

TSC officials have told Fuss-Sommer they know the school must take her on as part of the old agreement, but she says they’ve been fuzzy on the details. Fuss-Sommer says TSC has even told the 92ers they may have to apply for a new position.

TSC officials say the school is discussing how to make room for the 92ers, which include 23 staff and 24 faculty, including Fuss-Sommer. Although the staffers have jobs with UT-Brownsville through August, dismissed faculty members have less than a month until the end of their employment.

In late March, Garcia told the Observer the upheaval is all part of the grand transition for higher education in the Valley. “This is just a moment. … It is the launching of a new university,” she said. “We need good faculty. We need good staff. We were trying to [lay off] the least number.”

One week after she said that, on April 2, UT-Brownsville sent pink slips to 257 staff members, bringing the total number of fired employees to 362. Again, the layoffs were attributed to the anticipated lower number of enrolling students after the separation in September 2013. UT-Brownsville gave its staff the rest of the day off that Tuesday, and then expected employees to come back to work the following day.

“It was like a morgue,” recalls Terry Garrett, Brownsville chapter president of the Texas Faculty Association, and a tenured UT-Brownsville government professor. “We’re talking about a region of Texas that is the poorest in the state. … So what is the impact going to be in the community of Brownsville?” he wonders. “It’s just a horrendous sort of thing.”

Buildings on the UT-Brownsville campus.
Beth Cortez-Neavel
The UT-Brownsville campus. In 2004, UTB and TSC built six new buildings with $68 million in local bond money. Now lawmakers are planning separate construction for the campus created when UTB and UT-Pan American merge.

UT-Brownsville has begun moving out of the TSC-owned buildings and into the four it owns independently. The UT Regents are considering 12 sites for new UT-Brownsville campus buildings, for which they’ve requested $151.6 million from the state. For now, UT-Brownsville plans to share classrooms with TSC for a few more years, though the schools are still negotiating the rent.

“I have a lot of anguish about the break-up and the results of it,” says Rep. Rene Oliveira (D-Brownsville), who was behind the legislation that created the original partnership. “These were some of the reasons I did not want them to break up. … It’s an incredible blow to these individuals and to the community. “

But legislators and UT System officials hope the community will ultimately benefit from the break-up, and state leaders are stoking excitement about the new super-school for the Valley that will bring together UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American in Edinburg. The UT System projects the new school could enroll the second largest number of Hispanics of any school in the nation, and top administrators have promised not to lay off more faculty as the schools merge. Faculty in the Valley have heard similar promises before.

Oliveira says the merger is the best long-term solution, and shouldn’t be seen as related to the tumultuous split with TSC. “I think it’s sort of the old saying: one door closes, another opens.”

Beth Cortez-Neavel is a graduate student at the University of Texas-Austin and an Observer reporting intern. 

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