WEEK IN REVIEW
SENATE APPROVES BOOSTS TO UNIVERSITY, MENTAL HEALTH FUNDING
(AUSTIN) — The Senate this week passed two bills that will put billions more towards certain state university systems and the state's mental healthcare systems. The first would create a new endowment to serve schools outside of the state's Permanent University Fund. That's the endowment that contributes billions each biennium to the University of Texas and Texas A&M systems, fueled by a 150-year-old grant of west Texas land from the state legislature. Only those two systems benefit from the PUF, and as other universities grow, the need for an additional endowment serving the state's other university research programs has grown as well. SB 19, by Finance Committee chair and Houston Senator Joan Huffman, would put about $4.3 billion in state dollars into a new Texas University Fund. While any system that meets the qualifications, which are tied number of projects completed and doctorates awarded, can benefit, right now only four do. These are the University of North Texas, the University of Houston, Texas State University, and Texas Tech University. State higher education officials estimate the initial biennial payout from the new endowment to be around $240 million, and the University of Houston and Texas Tech will each get a third of those dollars, with UNT and Texas State splitting the last third. "I know this is a significant investment in higher ed institutions in Texas, but the state must continue to support institutions that do not have alternative sources of revenue to further achieve national prominence as major research universities," said Huffman.
Later, the Senate gave unanimous approval to a bill to bolster the state's mental healthcare infrastructure with $3.4 billion new dollars across dozens of state agencies. SB 26, by Health and Human Services Committee chair and Brenham Senator Lois Kolkhorst, works with the draft budget to expand capacity at Texas state hospitals, which Kolkhorst says are short about 2,500 beds. Almost all of that need is for what are called forensic beds, which serve patients in the criminal justice system. Right now, most of those patients are held in local jails. "I think this is a civil rights issue," said Kolkhorst. "You shouldn't be waiting in jail to have your mental competency restored to wait to go to trial". The Senate plan would expand capacity by just under 1,000 beds, at least half of which must be forensic. Not all of the shortages are due to infrastructure capacity — Kolkhorst said that another 600 beds in Texas are empty because of staffing shortages. Under the Senate budget, staff at state hospitals will receive a pay raise of almost 40 percent.
The bill directs construction of new facilities across the state but most new construction will be located in underserved west Texas, with new state hospitals slated for Amarillo, Big Spring, Lubbock, and Midland, among other places, with many existing facilities getting more beds or other refurbishments. Serving these rural areas is a major priority of Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, who learned just how severe the mental healthcare shortage is in the more sparsely populated regions of the state. "We do not have enough beds to meet the need," said Patrick. He called the Senate plan "the biggest package for mental health care ever designed" in America.
Also this week, the Senate approved a bill that would give state and local peace officers authority to arrest people who enter Texas from Mexico illegally. State officers can't enforce federal immigration policy, so SB 2424 by Granbury Senator Brian Birdwell, would create a new, state-level trespassing offense for illegally entering the state from a foreign nation. This would only be a class A misdemeanor for a first offense, but subsequent offenses can push penalties up to a second degree felony. Birdwell said he hopes that once word gets out that crossing the border in Texas can land you in a state jail, migrants will move west. "You want to come into the country illegally, go through New Mexico, Arizona, or California," he said.
The Senate will reconvene Monday, April 17 at 11 a.m.