To protect the future of its campus, UTB President Juliet V. Garcia, in Austin, received the UT System’s approval to ask the Texas Legislature for $151.6 million — the largest such request ever made by UTB — in tuition revenue bonds toward the construction of a new campus in a yet undisclosed location.
Garcia’s request is just one of a few the University of Texas System Board of Regents was asked to endorse from various universities at the regents’ meeting Wednesday.
All projects were approved by the board, including construction of a new science building for the University of Texas-Pan American, at a cost of $98 million. The building would add 19 instructional labs and three classrooms to an area of study where it’s really needed, UTPA President Robert Nelsen told the Facilities Planning and Construction Committee during the meeting.
Regents approved plans for the new facilities, but the Texas Legislature must approve funding to move the concepts forward to actual construction.
Garcia and Nelsen will return to Austin on Monday to answer questions about their respective proposals before the Senate Finance Committee, said state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, who sits on the committee.
The project approved for the University of Texas at Brownsville will provide the university with funds for building classrooms, a library and information technology center, space for music instruction and for other necessities that Garcia said are needed to accommodate the expected UTB enrollment.
UTB owns 228,000 net square feet in its urban location, Garcia said, but the future campus should have 1 million square feet for the enrollment that is expected.
This funding request would cover 60 percent of the total space needed for UTB to flourish, said Garcia.
Whether the two universities, UTPA and UTB, do merge to become one “emerging research university,” is yet to be seen. Creation of the new university will require approval by two-thirds of lawmakers in the Texas Legislature.
Regardless, Garcia said she needs to prepare now for the future.
“Whether or not we merge, we still have to build this campus,” Garcia said in a phone interview.
“It’ll be extraordinarily important for us because we need to prepare ourselves for final separation from Texas Southmost College.”
The proposed construction would need to be finalized by September 2016, she said.
“What we don’t know yet is whether we are going to expand in place as an urban campus or in another site,” she said.
In a workshop with the City Commission last week, UTB Provost Alan Artibise said the university would need to acquire more than 300 acres for a projected population of 20,000 during the next few decades.
Talks with TSC over acquiring some TSC land for UTB campus expansion are “good and productive,” Garcia said.
A second option for UTB, if talks with TSC do not succeed, Garcia said is to use the UTB property on the Fort Brown campus for some program studies and build a “large undergraduate institution north of Brownsville, somewhere between us and San Benito.”
The last time UTB was given tuition revenue bonds was in 2006 when $34 million went toward the construction of the biomedical research building, Garcia said.
Legislators are still unsure whether the budget will allow for tuition revenue bonds.
State Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the Legislature providing these funds for UTB.
But with the Board of Regents approving $1.1 billion in projects at the meeting, he is wary about declaring an early victory.
“We would need to come up with an excess of $100 million to pay for all of these requests,” Oliveira said about the multiple projects approved for campuses across the state.
“We have not gotten a clear signal yet whether the state will be able to do tuition revenue bonds. It’s anticipated that we may, but it’s not a guarantee,” Oliveira said. “Just like everything else we need in Brownsville and the Valley, we have to fight for it and hope we can secure the funding.”
The tuition revenue bonds could come up in the Texas House of Representatives appropriations bill, which decides how the state government spends money, in late April or early May, Oliveira said. If not then, then it is possible it could pass as its own bill, he said.
The Senate Finance Committee has 15 members and they’ve already begun speaking about the budget, Lucio said.
“We have the resources at this time and we can find the resources that are needed to make this happen,” Lucio said. “The experience both presidents have and the knowledge in terms of their needs will be invaluable. It certainly will give us the opportunity to listen to what the future holds in store for us.”