Op-Ed: Governor Perry’s Veto of Community College Funding Makes Higher Education Less Accessible and Less Affordable for Many

“Our greatest challenge in higher education remains ensuring our schools are accessible and affordable for every qualified student.” So proclaimed Gov. Rick Perry during a 2002 address to community college officials. Unfortunately for many qualified students and community colleges around the state, the governor made this challenge even greater when he vetoed $154 million in much-needed funding to community colleges in June.

Approximately 575,000 students are enrolled at community colleges, and nearly 72 percent of college freshmen attend one. What’s more, 70 percent of higher education enrollment growth is at community colleges, which account for approximately half of higher education enrollment in Texas.

Although these institutions are critical in our efforts to increase access to higher educational opportunities and to ensure academic success, the state provides only approximately 31 percent of their funding. The remainder must come from local taxes, tuition and fees, and local funds.

To put the impact of Gov. Perry’s veto into perspective, the $157 million that he cut is more than the total new dollars appropriated to community colleges this biennium for operations and instruction.

This unwarranted and unexpected action will not only negatively affect our community colleges’ efforts to achieve the goals of Closing the Gaps, but also severely strain their resources. The grim reality is that to make up for this lost funding, community colleges will either have to raise local property taxes, increase tuition, reduce services or, sadly, do all three. Any of these options negatively will affect their ability to serve students who typically have the fewest resources to attend college. The worst result is that many students may be forced to drop out of college because of the governor’s actions.

Even more shocking is the governor’s veto message accusing the community colleges of falsifying their appropriations request. Having attended every budget hearing, I know that community college officials submitted full and accurate information in their budget requests. That the governor would accuse them of falsehood is beyond comprehension. The legislature in good faith chose to fully fund community college employee benefits with general revenue because we understand that community colleges are under-funded and over-burdened.

In addition to the $154 million for higher education group insurance, Gov. Perry also vetoed funding for new community college campuses at Alamo Community College, Austin Community College, Houston Community College, Paris Junior College and Temple College.

Because formula funding is based on student enrollment for the two years prior to the biennium, these funds are critical for the operations of new campuses that cannot receive formula funding due to the lack of student enrollment data. Gov. Perry’s veto will exacerbate the financial difficulties these community colleges will face in providing much needed educational opportunities.

As chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education, I understand the important role of community colleges in developing a well-trained workforce and in providing affordable access to higher education. Accordingly, I will continue to work with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and our colleagues who support this important funding to remedy the situation during the interim so that these institutions and their students are not penalized unfairly.

To do this will require the combined efforts not only of legislative leaders, but also of community college leaders, students and their families. Cumulatively, we must convince the governor to right his wrong by approving budget execution authority to restore these crucial funds for our community colleges and our students.”

SENATOR ZAFFIRINI, STATE HOUSING AGENCY ANNOUNCE RELEASE OF $97 MILLION IN HOMEBUYER FUNDS

AUSTIN — State Senator Judith Zaffirini today joined the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) in announcing the release of $97 million in homebuyer funds dedicated to making Texans’ dreams of homeownership come true. TDHCA is making these funds available through the Department’s Texas First Time Homebuyer Program in the form of low interest rate loans beginning as low as 5.25 percent.

“These essential homebuyer funds provide rare and valuable opportunities for persons in Laredo who dream of owning a home but thought that it was beyond reach,” Senator Zaffirini said. “Most of us consider homeownership to be a primary means of accumulating wealth. What’s more, homeownership is the intangible force that binds neighbors and communities together. TDHCA and Texas are committed to helping many low to moderate income Texans purchase homes, and these funds will help us achieve this goal.”

“This $97 million in homebuyer funds will have a tremendous and positive impact on Texas residents, and certainly those living right here in Laredo,” said Michael Gerber, TDHCA Executive Director. “We feel we are, quite literally, putting a down payment on a brighter future for Laredo and Webb County with this funding release. However, I encourage interested individuals to not wait too long to contact TDHCA or a participating lender. This is an extraordinary opportunity for low to moderate income Texans to buy a home with affordable monthly payments, and the funds will not last.”

Gerber added that, in a first for the program, the first time homebuyer requirement will be waived for Texas veterans. “We are particularly proud of our ability to reach these American heroes and help them secure a home of their own,” he said. Under this waiver, Gerber explained, any vet who can provide proper discharge papers and who has not previously participated in this loan program can be a current homeowner and still participate in this program.

The state-sponsored First Time Homebuyer program offers qualifying households the ability to purchase a home at rates typically unmatched anywhere in the state, bringing homeownership within reach for many Texas families. On hand for the announcement were new homeowners Rolando and Sonya Palacios. Officials recognized Rolando and Sonya with a symbolic keychain for the key to their new home, which they recently purchased through the Texas First Time Homebuyer Program.

Approximately 50 lenders with more than 500 branch offices throughout the state offer the below-market interest rate loans. Interested homebuyers may visit the program’s website at www.myfirsttexashome.com or call (800) 792-1119 to learn more about eligibility requirements, program details, or to find a participating lender.

Gerber explained that loans through this program will be available in two forms: unassisted loans, with no additional funds for down payment and closing costs, and assisted loans which come with down payment and closing cost assistance. Interest rates will range from 5.25 percent for statewide unassisted loans to 5.99 percent for assisted loans statewide.

TDHCA is reserving $15 million of these funds for a 22-county region of southeast Texas impacted by Hurricane Rita officially designated by Congress as the Hurricane Rita Gulf Opportunity (“GO”) Zone. Loans made inside the Rita GO Zone will be offered at the 5.99 percent rate and all with come with the 5 percent grant for down payment assistance.

As Texas’ lead agency for promoting homeownership, TDHCA focuses on the act of buying a home and helping transform the lives of the individuals who participate in its programs. TDHCA’s homebuyer programs each year help thousands of low- to moderate-income Texans achieve their homeownership goals, while educating them about the risks and responsibilities that accompany those rewards.

To facilitate this aspect of TDHCA’s mission, the Department sponsors the Texas Statewide Homebuyer Education Program (TSHEP), a statewide program offered by local governments and nonprofit organizations in all 254 Texas counties. The program is designed to provide information and counseling to prospective homebuyers about the home buying process.

To find the nearest TSHEP homebuyer education provider, please visit the Department’s homebuyer assistance information page at www.tdhca.state.tx.us/assist_homebuying.htm and simply key in the name of your city. Interested individuals may also call (512) 475-3975 for more information.

Photos from the news conference are available online at http://www.tdhca.state.tx.us/ppa/media/.

About The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs

The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs is Texas’ lead agency responsible for affordable housing, community and energy assistance programs, and colonia activities. The Department annually administers funds in excess of $400 million, the majority of which is derived from mortgage revenue bond financing and refinancing, federal grants, and federal tax credits.

SENATOR ZAFFIRINI PASSES 72 BILLS DURING 2007 SESSION

AUSTIN — Senator Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, passed another 72 bills during the 2007 legislative session, bringing her total to 587 since 1987. This legislation will enhance border communities and colonias; strengthen laws that protect children; provide much needed resources for state health and human services; and increase higher education access, affordability and excellence.

“By working closely with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, coalitions from city and county governments within SD 21, higher education representatives, committed advocates within the state health and human services community and my colleagues in the Senate and House,” Senator Zaffirini said, “we continued to make a difference for families, students, persons with developmental and intellectual disabilities and Texans most in need of health and human services.”

Bills passed by Senator Zaffirini include Senate Bill 6, which protects Texas children and families from sexual communication and solicitation via the internet. Part of Lt. Governor Dewhurst’s Texas Children First plan, it will make the internet safer for Texas children. SB 6 was sponsored in the House of Representatives by Rep. Aaron Pena, D-Edinburg.

The bill increases the penalty for sexually explicit on-line communications with a minor who is from 14 to 16 years old from a state jail felony to a third degree felony and increases the penalty for on-line sexual solicitation of a minor who is from 14 to 16 years old from a third degree felony to a second degree felony.

Procedures for collecting and analyzing information relating to sexual offenses will be improved with the passage of House Bill 76 by Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin and Zaffirini. HB 401 by Rep. Betty Brown, R-Athens, and Zaffirini allows law enforcement officials to consider the use of text messages or other electronic message services when investigating the offense of online solicitation of a minor.

Senator Zaffirini’s bills passed relating to border affairs and enhancement of colonias include SB 99, which will support persons living in Texas’ most impoverished communities by increasing the number of state agencies required to submit data about projects that serve colonias. SB 99’s House sponsor was Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City. The bill also will increase accountability of the logistical and financial reports regarding colonia improvements made by agencies and by state and local governments.

SB 893 by Zaffirini and Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, authorizes counties along the Rio Grande to construct a railroad toll bridge.

Higher education affordability, access and excellence greatly was improved with the passage of SB 1050 by Zaffirini and Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, which creates new work-study opportunities by developing a program through which students could serve as peer mentors and tutors as part of their work-study financial aid program; SB 1051 by Zaffirini and Rep. Guillen, which provides waivers to the core curriculum for foreign students enrolled in international institutions in a joint-degree program with Texas colleges and universities; and SB 1053 by Zaffirini and Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, which requires the Higher Education Coordinating Board, advising professionals and higher education representatives to develop an assessment of advisors at institutions of higher education to improve the quality of advising.

HB 1427 by Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, and Zaffirini provides resources for recruiting economically disadvantaged students to the profession of optometry, and HB 1775 by Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Nacogdoches, and Zaffirini authorizes the issuance of $13 million in tuition revenue bonds to expand the Stephen F. Austin State University School of Nursing.

Senator Zaffirini also passed bills that support local governments in SD 21. SB 63 by Zaffirini and Rep. Juan Escobar, D-Kingsville, helps Jim Hogg County offer more efficient county services and prevents the proliferation of colonias by providing the county with the same authority given to general-law municipalities. SB 404 by Zaffirini and Rep. Yvonne Gonzalez Tourielles, D-Alice, codifies the statutory authority and administrative effectiveness of the Bee County Groundwater Conservation District. HB 2322 by Rep. Guillen and Zaffirini exempts Zapata County from the four percent limit on its hotel occupancy tax, which will increase revenue for the county to fund economic development activities.

Improving access to and the quality of state health and human services always are among Senator Zaffirini’s highest legislative priorities. HB 246 by Rep. Alonzo and Zaffirini increases the frequency and efficiency of health authority reports to the Department of State Health Services regarding cases of diagnosed HIV and AIDS infections. HB 3619 by Rep. Raymond and Zaffirini creates a bilingual coordinated health program in South Texas school districts.

Collection and analysis of data regarding early childhood education and bilingual education strategies will be improved by provisions within SB 1871 by Zaffirini and Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston. HB 1137 by Rep. Hochberg and Zaffirini will prevent incidents of school dropout by allowing older students to be admitted to public schools and receive high school diplomas.

SB 61 by Zaffirini and Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, authorizes Texas counties to adopt internal response plans for catastrophic events or declared disasters. The bill empowers counties and municipalities with the authority to adopt a comprehensive plan for the continuity of government functions during a declared disaster or other catastrophic event such as a bio-terror attack or dangerous outbreak.

SB 64 by Zaffirini and Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, requires general-purpose political committees (PACs) to disclose contributions of more than $5,000 during the last nine days of a campaign. It closes a loophole that allowed large contributions to general-purpose PACs to go unreported for months after a general or primary election.

“This certainly was a highly successful legislative session,” said Senator Zaffirini. “I am grateful for Lt. Governor Dewhurst’s leadership and for the opportunity to work with my colleagues in the Senate and House to enact bills that will benefit the families of SD 21 and our state.”

At the beginning of the legislative session Lt. Gov. Dewhurst re-appointed Senator Zaffirini Chair of the Senate Higher Education Subcommittee and Vice Chair of the Senate Finance Committee. He also appointed her to a seventh term on the Appropriations Conference Committee that wrote the state’s $153 billion budget. She also served as a member of the Senate’s Education, Health and Human Services and Administration Committees.