UH Holding Out for More Tier One Funds, Blocking Legislative Deal

The University of Houston is the last holdout in a vote to set the funding distribution method out of a voter-backed endowment devoted to ramping up the number of nationally ranked universities in Texas.

The University of Texas and Texas A&M University are the state's two flagship Tier I universities. Lawmakers agreed last session to sweeten the pot in order to add to that number, intending to take pressure off the waiting list at UT Austin. Voters passed a constitutional amendment to back that effort in November 2009.

Now the time has come to agree to a way to distribute the money, but a deal has been stalled for weeks. Senator Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, told the Senate Higher Education Committee this morning she expected some resolution before session's end. She's given UH two choices: either sign onto the plan that six other institutions have agreed to support or propose a plan that can win unanimous approval.

Senator Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who is a key player in the deal, has tight deadlines to meet but tells Hair Balls he is confident a deal can be cut. The problem right now is that UH wants a bigger slice of the pie than key lawmakers are willing to support.

"We will get this done and we will create additional Tier One institutions," Ellis said. "I am committed to getting the most sustainable and best funded plan possible so that we create more world-class institutions in the shortest amount of time possible. I believe we can deliver a big investment now and still maintain a large and growing reserve fund for universities that move along the path to Tier One Status down the road."

Seven emerging research universities are vying for money out of the so-called National Research University Fund. Three of those universities -- UH, Texas Tech and UT Dallas -- expect to qualify for funding this biennium under criteria set out by the Texas Higher Education Coordination Board in January.

The funding support, under various bills proposed this session, would have ranged from $6.75 million on the low end to $15 million in a bill backed by Ellis and Representative Garnet Coleman. Right now, the mid-course adjustment is a bill sponsored by House Higher Education Chair Representative Dan Branch, R-Dallas, that would provide both UH and Texas Tech with about $9 million.

UH wants more money on the front end, and less devoted to building the endowment's financial base, in order to build the university's stature quicker. The other six universities agreed to hold off a bit more, in an effort to leave more money for the four lagging institutions. Stay tuned for the final deal.

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