Area lawmakers are at odds with Gov. Rick Perry following his veto of higher education legislation that would have added oversight to regents at state universities.
On Friday, Perry vetoed Senate Bill 15, which had passed both chambers with overwhelming bipartisan support, including the endorsements of Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown; Rep. John Raney, R-Bryan; and Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-Brazos County.
The bill from Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, would have restrained the power of university system regents in Texas, all of which have been appointed by Perry in his 13 years as governor.
The most notable proposal was that regents wouldn't have been able to fire presidents without getting a recommendation to do so from the university system chancellor -- a provision primarily stemming from ongoing conflicts within the University of Texas System. The bill also called for regents to be appointed while the Legislature is in session and required regents to undergo training in basic governance, conflicts of interest, auditing, ethics and open meeting laws before voting on budgetary or personnel matters.
The Texas A&M University System regents are the top decision makers for 12 universities and nine state agencies that combine for a $3.5 billion budget.
Gerry Griffin, a founding member of the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a group that advocates for higher education improvements, acknowledged the conflicts at UT inspired the bill, but said the overhaul would have benefited all university systems.
The UT regents have been charged with micromanaging the flagship university in Austin and have scrutinized the performance of president Bill Powers.
"We've had good regents at A&M and we've had weak ones over the years," said Griffin, an Aggie. "By and large, a lot of appointees are made by the governor at the time based on their donations, and we've had our share of that. If they're capable people and understand higher education and the idea of running a large enterprise, that it's not a factory, that's the thing I think we need."
The bill was not a "cure-all," Griffin said, but a step in the right direction.
"I don't think it would have hurt anything," Griffin said.
He expects the issue to reignite when the Legislature reconvenes in two years.
Perry explained the veto in a press release.
"Limiting oversight authority of a board of regents, however, is a step in the wrong direction," he said.
Perry said in a statement that limiting regents' authority "diminishes accountability and provides fertile ground for organizational malfeasance."
"I am committed to improving higher education and making sure students and taxpayers receive the greatest value for the investment they make in higher education. We have achieved great success to that end, and must continue to build upon it."
Local lawmakers were unhappy with the decision.
"I supported SB 15, as did a vast majority of each chamber, because it increased transparency and accountability of gubernatorial appointees to a board of regents," said Raney in an email. "The governor's veto of SB 15 and his decision to not add Tuition Revenue Bonds to the special session call was, in my opinion, a hit to higher education. I look forward to addressing both matters next session."
Fellow freshman legislator Kacal, in an emailed statement, said public universities should be governed efficiently and transparently.
"It is unfortunate that Governor Perry chose to veto SB 15, a bill that sought to explicitly improve transparency and provide for the proper management of these public institutions," said Kacal. "I supported the legislation because it required that regents on the boards of universities have no conflicts of interest, that their reports and votes were made available to the public, and that new regents went through proper training on ethics. Whenever we can provide the public with more information about how their government is managed, we ensure that our citizens are able to hold their government properly accountable."
Schwertner was unavailable for comment Monday, but his chief of staff, Tom Holloway, elaborated on Schwertner's position on the bill.
"Senator Schwertner supported Senate Bill 15 and its attempt to outline a clearer balance of responsibilities between the regents and university administrators charged with managing our state's institutions of higher education," Holloway said in an emailed statement. "While he would have liked to see this bill become law, the senator respects the governor's decision in this matter."