Fast Start

Feb 24, 2015, 08:48 AM by Melissa Harman

The 2015 Legislative Session got off to an accelerated start! We’ve hardly had time to respond to usual business with the massive number of meetings and hearings that abound.

So what is different this time?

For starters, we have a whole new team in Austin. All executive leadership has changed from Governor to Land Commissioner. And over half of the legislators (House and Senate) have served less than two terms in their districts. The Speaker of the House, Joe Straus, is the only person to return to his “old job” and that was with a recorded landmark vote of House members, only 19 of whom were opposed. Straus set a rigorous pace by naming committees and chairs in record time, and by shuffling up the leadership roles and distributing the talent around the table.

In the Senate, newly elected Lt. Governor (and President of the Texas Senate) Dan Patrick likewise, named his committees quickly, with Senator Jane Nelson continuing to chair the powerful Senate Finance Committee and Senator Charles Schwertner assuming the role of chair of the very important Health & Human Services Committee.

UTMB’s legislative agenda remains unchanged from this past fall when we provided testimony before the House, Senate and Legislative Budget Board. UTMB’s top priorities remain:

1. Growth in formula funding to support our educational programs for students, necessary university infrastructure for that purpose, and research critical to solving the health problems of the state and nation. All state universities share this same agenda item since the Legislature in 2001 reduced the allocation for formula funding (the amount that the state provides toward student education at public universities) and then went on to deregulate tuition in 2003. Of course, with fewer funds from the state, universities’ only option to cover increased educational costs has been to increase tuition. Increasing formula funding should offer students some future relief from tuition increases.

2. UTMB has grown its student population by 42.4 percent since 2006. With that growth (up from 2,600 when Hurricane Ike flooded its way through our campus to over 3,200 with this year’s fall enrollment), UTMB needs more space for student study groups, lectures, laboratories, and related activities. UTMB leadership’s answer has been to construct a new multipurpose, interprofessional education building on the west end of the Galveston campus. Without that investment, UTMB will not be able to continue to expand its enrollment to address future health care workforce needs of Texas. UTMB is asking the state for a Tuition Revenue Bond or other funding mechanism to provide $67.8 million toward that new facility; the remainder of the proposed $90 million building would come from philanthropy and university financing.

3. UTMB’s renovations and new buildings that have emerged from the wake of Hurricane Ike are now coming on-line, and with that comes the depreciation expense of those buildings in our budget. UTMB needs additional funds in its Health System budget to cover those expenses. Both UT MD Anderson and UTHealth Northeast (Tyler) have “formulas” that drive biennial increases in their hospital budgets. In the past UTMB has sought similar treatment from the Legislature but without success. UTMB is asking the Legislature to treat UTMB with equity regarding the base hospital increases received by other UT System hospitals.

4. All Health Related Institutions have asked for “special item” appropriations to fund university improvement projects and/or research deemed vital to the overall success of the university that also benefits the state and nation. UTMB has asked for three critical areas of support:

Combating Texas’ Emerging Infections ($8.55 million over two years)

i. Expands UTMB’s expertise in combating emerging infections by fostering collaboration with other Texas research institutions
ii. Focuses on the development of artificial organs and tissues that mimic human organs to facilitate the testing of drugs and vaccines
iii. Builds on the substantial federal and state investment in UTMB’s Galveston National Laboratory

Trans-Texas Vaccine Institute ($8 million over two years)

i. Creates a multi-agency institute to support collaborative projects that expedite the development and production of needed vaccines
ii. Builds on the success of UTMB’s interdisciplinary Sealy Center for Vaccine Development, and maximizes impact of expertise found through Texas’ higher education community
iii. Bolsters UTMB’s recent designation as a World Health Organization recognized vaccine center, and helps propel Texas to the forefront of vaccine development in the nation

Regenerative Medicine Matching Grant ($6 million over two years)

i. Provides two years of funding to leverage the recent four-year, $3 million per year Moody Foundation grant focused on reversing trauma induced alterations in the brain and spinal cord
ii. Supports multidisciplinary projects to create agents capable of reversing trauma induced alterations of the brain and spinal cord

Governor Greg Abbott delivered his first “State of the State” address to a combined session of the Texas House and Texas Senate and received an enthusiastic welcome from members of both chambers. Abbott stressed the importance of Texas charting an aggressive course for the future, outlined his budget priorities and listed five items that he placed on his “emergency agenda” – early education, higher education research initiatives, border security funding, transportation funding and ethics reforms.  That agenda simply means that the Legislature is asked by the Governor to make those items a priority for early action during the session.