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By Dr. Wright Lassiter, Chancellor

Gov. Rick Perry stunned the state’s community colleges last Friday (June 15) by vetoing $153,979,799 in funding approved by the Legislature for community colleges. To assert that this action came as a total surprise is an understatement. Since the announcement, I have been coordinating with our own board chairman, plus presidents and chancellors from the state’s other 49 community college districts, my staff and the staff of the Texas Association of Community Colleges regarding actions that should be taken to address this dilemma in which we find ourselves.

The purpose of this communication is to share with the community the details about what happened and what measures we will take. I want to share this information with our DCCCD campus community and external audiences. Newspapers from throughout the state are looking at this issue, and reporters are interviewing community college CEOs from across the state (including me) to gather input concerning the impact of this action and what actions are being considered. DCCCD’s views and my comments were included in a Dallas Morning News article that appeared on Wednesday, June 20.  

At this juncture, it is in our best interests to present a vivid picture of the impact of the governor’s veto. Although I have spoken about the possibility of increased taxes, tuition increases, budget cuts and accessibility challenges, I want everyone to know that those measures are not in our plans for 2007-2008. I will follow the plan that was presented to the board of trustees in a work session earlier this month. This veto directly impacts fiscal year 2009, so we will begin initial planning for that budget immediately.

What exactly happened?

Gov. Perry vetoed approximately $154 million of approved legislative funding for community college employee group health insurance for the 2008-2009 fiscal year, not for the upcoming 2007-2008 fiscal year. The veto will cut funding for DCCCD by $15,758,341.   Because we are the largest community college district, you can see that we are absorbing 10 percent of the budget cut.

Ironically, the governor has vetoed the budget request that he submitted during the 80th Legislature. Lawmakers received the governor’s funding recommendations; put them to the test through a lengthy legislative process (which involved my presence and that of our governmental affairs executive director in Austin continuously from January through May); and then ultimately approved them. Then the governor vetoed that action.

This unexpected and unwarranted veto comes at a time when college budgets for the coming year already have been established, based on the governor’s recommendations — as approved by the Legislature. The late veto provides the colleges and the Legislature with little recourse to reverse the action.

It is disturbing that, in his veto proclamation, Gov. Perry unabashedly accused the state’s community colleges of falsifying their funding requests in order to justify the legislative appropriations. That is patently not correct. As DCCCD’s representative, I resent such a characterization.

The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Warren Chisum, was quoted in the Austin American-Statesman; he labeled the governor’s statement as “pretty strong stuff.” He added, “I question what the governor’s opposition is to community colleges. They’re over half the higher education enrollment in Texas but not even a third of the higher education budget.”

Rep. Chisum is a strong advocate for community colleges, and his views are valid. This veto disproportionately affects those colleges that enroll the most students at the least cost. We enroll the vast majority of freshman and sophomore students in the state, plus the overwhelming majority of minority students.

The veto makes deep cuts in community college budgets, while identical funding for state universities and colleges, state agencies, and the University of Texas and Texas A&M University systems were not affected by the veto. Why are community colleges being treated so unfairly?

What is DCCCD’s position on the veto?

First, we totally disagree with the governor’s accusation that the Dallas County Community College District, or any other Texas community college, has falsified appropriation requests.

Detailed budget instructions are provided by the state’s Legislative Budget Board (LBB); we followed those instructions carefully. DCCCD representatives were present and participated in legislative budget board hearings before both the House and Senate, as well as budget hearings with the governor’s staff. 

Had community colleges falsified funding requests, members of the LBB would have brought that to our attention immediately.

All college funding requests were disclosed and discussed with the Legislature before funding decisions were made. The governor was fully aware of the direction in which the Legislature was moving throughout the session — yet he did not intervene until the session was over and legislators had left Austin. The he vetoed their legislation and accused Texas community colleges of improper actions. All of these actions should raise questions.

All 50 community college districts strongly condemn this action and deny the accusations.

When Texas’ community colleges lose ground, then the state’s economy feels that negative impact. We simply cannot provide a better future for Texans when anticipated funding (which still does not represent full formula funding) is given and then taken away.

The governor must know that this funding cut will cause serious problems. He has suggested that community college boards simply need to raise local property taxes and increase student tuition in order to make up for the reduction in state funding. How are we going to “Close the Gaps” behind this action?

During the last two legislative sessions, the governor has led efforts to cap property taxes — making it almost impossible to compensate for budget cuts using that source. We should remind others that, five years ago, we were told by the governor’s office to adjust our spending for a 7 percent across-the-board budget cut at mid-year, which we are just beginning to recover from.

What are the potential effects of the veto on DCCCD?

DCCCD and other community colleges/systems from across the state face unpleasant choices as we plan for the resulting budget cuts, beginning with the fall 2008 academic year. Some of those unpleasant choices include tax and tuition increases, hiring freezes, travel constraints and program cuts in areas like remedial classes that are taken by an ever-increasing number of freshmen who aren’t ready for college-level work.

We would ask our trustees to approve a tax increase only as an absolute last resort. We also want to remind the governor that forcing community colleges to implement higher tuition also prices lower-income students out of the market — the exact market that two-year colleges typically are trying to reach.

What is our strategy to respond to the veto?

The DCCCD community must take a strong, united stand to refute Gov. Perry’s claims. We already have sent a letter to the governor, protesting his veto, which was signed by the chair of DCCCD’s Board of Trustees and the chancellor; the entire DCCCD Board of Trustees is sending a letter as well. We have also contacted our area state legislators to express our concerns. Many of our advocates have indicated an interest in expressing your thoughts on this issue. Please visit the DCCCD Governmental Affairs Web page for additional information on how to contact the governor or your state legislator.

I wish to thank everyone — employees, community members, legislators, donors and friends — for their support and advocacy on the district’s behalf. Please continue to support DCCCD and the students we serve by voicing your disapproval of Gov. Perry’s veto.

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