Legislative session yields pay raises, funding for new programs, buildings
The 77th Legislative Session — 140 days of negotiating, informing, voting and more negotiating. Sound exciting? Most of us would probably say no. But for several Health Science Center representatives, each legislative session is new, different and fulfilling. This session was particularly interesting for Dr. Francisco G. Cigarroa, Health Science Center president, because it was his first.
"Despite the hectic pace, the long hours and the days of uncertainty about the final budget, I thoroughly enjoyed this legislative session. Our elected officials are dedicated, hard-working, concerned leaders who care passionately about the future of higher education. Our greatest threat was a scheduled loss of $10 million from our basic budget, and it was a great sense of relief when we learned that our efforts had been successful and the $10 million would be restored," Dr. Cigarroa said.
University of Texas System officials said this year's Legislature made a major investment in higher education that will have immediate and long-term benefits for all Texans.
A report from the U. T. System stated that the general revenue appropriations for direct operations and employee benefits were increased by more than $1.2 billion for the two-year budget period that begins Sept. 1. General revenue increases for direct operations at the nine general academic campuses in the U. T. System are $119 million. For the six health institutions in the U. T. System, the increases total $71.5 million.
Robert B. Price, vice president for governmental relations, said the Health Science Center fared well considering that the state was faced with many competing demands for the funds available.
"This year, the Legislature approved a salary increase for all non-faculty employees," Price said. "Effective Sept. 1, all non-faculty employees will receive a 4 percent raise or a $100 a month increase, whichever is greater, in their paychecks."
Although funds were not appropriated for faculty salary increases by the Legislature, Price said merit-based faculty increases from institutional means were authorized. The Health Science Center will have selected merit increases for faculty for Fiscal Year 2002.
The longevity pay system also was affected by this legislative session. Instead of employees receiving a $20 increase after five years of employment at the Health Science Center, employees will receive that amount after only three years. This new system will take effect Sept. 1.
"The Legislature recognized the need for salary adjustments for all state employees, including non-faculty at institutions of higher education, and that was significant compared with some past sessions," Price said. "In addition, the adjustment to longevity pay is a welcome `bonus' for recognition of continued employment."
Other items approved include funding authorization for construction of a new Teaching/Learning Lab at the Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC) in Harlingen, additional facilities for the UTHSC Laredo Campus Extension and a Student Services/Academic Administration Building on the San Antonio campus. Funding also will continue for outreach programs through the South Texas/Border Region Health Education Initiative.
House Bill 1840, sponsored by Sen. Leticia Van de Putte and Rep. Robert Puente, will allow for the creation of the San Antonio Life Sciences Institute. The institute will be a collaborative effort between the faculty and administration of the UTHSC and the UTSA to develop new graduate programs.
Tuition will continue to increase at a rate of $2 a year per semester credit hour for resident students in the School of Nursing, the School of Allied Health Sciences and the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. Dental and Medical School tuition will not change.
One of the new items approved by the Legislature is the creation of a health insurance plan for all students at the UTHSC.
"Because we put the health and safety of our students very high on our list of priorities, the staff at the U. T. System is working on implementing a health insurance plan for our students," Price said. "All students will be required to carry insurance, but they will have the option of purchasing the university's plan or a plan from an insurance company of their choice. This will take effect when approved by the U. T. Board of Regents."
Although not all higher education needs were met this legislative session, Price said the successes the Health Science Center gained were significant. "We were up against issues such as Medicaid and the need for a health insurance plan for public school teachers," he said. "So I think the outcome was as good as could be expected in tight fiscal circumstances at the state level."
Price said the victories are a direct result of the hard work of those who spent many hours in Austin, including Dr. Cigarroa; Jim Kazen, executive vice president for administration; Steve Lynch, interim vice president for business affairs and chief financial officer; and Dr. Leonel Vela, regional dean who oversees UTHSC's RAHC initiatives.
"We also can thank the members of our Bexar County legislative delegation," he said. "Sen. Judith Zaffirini and Rep. Robert Puente, in particular, were outstanding in their support through their roles on the budget-writing committees."
Dr. Cigarroa and his staff are already preparing for the next legislative session.
"Although the ink is barely dry on this year's legislative initiatives, we are already thinking ahead to the next session. Our needs continue to be great, especially as we expand throughout the region, and we plan to be very aggressive about telling the story about the importance of this institution to this state."