Texas community colleges will get $154 million to pay for employees’ health insurance under an agreement reached Tuesday by Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick.
Community college officials have been warning of property tax increases, tuition increases and educational program cuts to compensate for $154 million in funds Perry vetoed this summer. In announcing their agreement, the leaders asked college officials to rescind tuition, fee or tax increases adopted for this year or any planned for next year that were designed to offset the original veto.
Perry has said he vetoed the money because lawmakers put provisions into the budget forbidding use of state money for benefits of employees whose salaries are paid with local money. The new money will only go to community college employees who are paid with state funds.
Colleges also will get a one-time payment of $55 million next year to help transition into the proposed changes. The leaders also agreed to work toward a new incentive program for colleges.
“I am encouraged that we … were also able to place a greater emphasis on achievement through incentive funding,” Perry said. “Community colleges are an integral part of our higher education system in Texas and, through incentive funding, we can begin to hold all our institutions of higher education accountable for the students they produce rather than just those they enroll.”
Since Perry’s veto, the issue has become a political football.
Dewhurst, thought to be mulling a bid for higher office, has been a vocal supporter of restoring the money and on Tuesday called community colleges the “backbone of our higher education system.”
House Democratic Leader Jim Dunnam of Waco applauded the agreement, but not without taking a jab at the Republican leadership.
“Perry’s original veto and Craddick’s failure to act were the equivalent of a tax increase on middle-class Texans,” Dunnam said. “The fact that it took four months to solve this mess is unacceptable; I’m glad a fix has finally been implemented, but I remain disappointed that this easily avoidable problem was created in the first place.”
Perry said he would appoint a task force to make recommendations, to be considered by the 2009 Legislature, on how future incentive funds should be allocated.
The money can be transferred from other accounts by the Legislative Budget Board, which is led by Perry, Dewhurst and Craddick. The money will be replaced in an emergency appropriation bill when the Legislature meets again in 2009, said Perry spokesman Robert Black. Officials had not yet determined which accounts the money would come from or details of the incentive funding, Black said.
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