The future of higher education in the Lone Star State topped the agenda Tuesday during a town hall meeting held by District 31 State Senator Kel Seliger, who said more funding may not equal a cure for recent cuts in education spending.
Seliger — who was recently named the chairman of the state Higher Education Committee — said the upcoming legislative session set for 2013 should be an interesting one.
“There's going to be more money in the state coffers; however, we have some past due bills that have to be paid in Medicaid and public education carryovers,” Seliger said. “We're going to have to address those issues. At the end of the day I'd like to think we'll have some more money to put into public education and higher education.
“It's a big committee with a very, very important subject: community colleges and universities in the state of Texas. This is where we prepare our workforce, both academically and in technical skills, primarily in the community college. It's where we provide the opportunities for young people as they get older and go to school.”
Seliger said putting a stop to the current trend in budget cuts effecting community colleges in the state is no easy task.
“It's tax revenue. We depend profoundly on sales tax in the local area and the taxing districts for property tax, as well as fees and fines and things like that,” Seliger said. “We depend to a very great degree on petroleum revenues, because that's what goes into the Permanent University Fund and the Permanent School Fund.
“We're not any different from any other state in that an awful lot of the issues — not all of them, but most of them — are going to be fiscal issues. We live in a state that's averse to taxes, as people who work hard for their money should be and want to keep it once they earn it. We've created our own problems by taxing at about the 47th or 48th most in the United States. But with more tax revenues, it will allow us to distribute more of them.”
Approaching the 2013 legislative session will be two-fold for many elected officials in Austin; according to Seliger, however, he will not be among those splitting their attention between where they are and where they want to be.
“My agenda is to see to it we have a well-prepared workforce and public education and community colleges are absolutely indispensable to to that roll and we need to provide for them on a limited budget,” Seliger said. “Because you all provide that budget and insist that it be limited. That's what we have to deal with.
“When we convene in 2013 there are going to be a lot of realities, not all of them the harsh types of reality. One of those realities is 2013 is going to be very much about the politics of 2014. Every single statewide office holder is aiming for something else and that's the nature of the political game. They are very concerned about the bills we will address and how it effects them. All of us have to run for re-election, including myself. However, for somebody like me who has the job they want, the biggest thing to me is how I represent this community and the communities around the Panhandle. Nobody else in the state of Texas is going to send me anywhere except in the 37 counties I represent in this district. This district includes six community college districts and two universities.”
Another area Seliger said he sees playing a large role in next year's legislature is transportation and state roadways.
“Transportation in critical. We currently spend about $8 billion a year, however, we need more roadways,” he said. “In this part of the state, in all honesty, what we mainly need to address are repair and maintenance issues. I don't hear much from (County Judge Mark Barr) about all the new highways he wants, but he certainly wants the ones the state is responsible for maintained so they can be used. Commerce depends on it and our economy is based on products and commodities and you have to move them.
“Also, people need to be able to move around. They have to be able to get from out of town into town, from home to work. There's nothing mysterious there. We have new leadership at the Texas Department of Transportation and I'm very enthusiastic about that ... The one area where I think we're going to try to raise some money is increases in vehicle registrations. I don't think that's a bad idea, however, I do think all of that money needs to go to highway construction. If 30 percent of it is going to stay in Travis County so TXDoT can do whatever it is they do, I'm opposed to it.”
As always, Seliger also showed a keen eye for water issues in the Crossroads area.
“I never talk anywhere without talking about water and this is a great place to talk about water,” Seliger said. “You've seen some of the best, most comprehensive planning anywhere in the state of Texas. You may ask, if the planning is so great, why do we have all these water problems? The reason is because a lot of the viability of the planning in this area relies upon rain and the water shed of the Colorado River Municipal Water District, which is exactly how it should be.
“Then again, the things that have been done in the way of ground water development and recycling are essential to the future. You may be breaking new ground here that everyone will have to do. Wastewater coming out of wastewater treatment plants and going down creeks and being given away for agricultural use, those days are over. We will some of that water go to ag use, however, as a waste product? No. Absolutely not.”