JIM VERTUNO,Associated Press
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Texas Senate gave final approval Wednesday to a measure placing new limits on university regents’ power to fire campus presidents, sending the bill to Gov. Rick Perry in the latest move in a struggle between the Legislature and the executive office over higher education.
Lawmakers have been engaged in a session-long dispute with several members of the University of Texas System board of regents, who have clashed in recent years with Austin campus President Bill Powers over issues such as tuition costs and the role of teaching and research at the university.
Powers, who has held the office since 2006, is believed to be fighting to keep his job. Several prominent lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, have accused some regents of engaging in a “witch hunt” against the president.
The measure sent to Perry on Wednesday would bar regents from firing presidents without first getting a recommendation from the university system chancellor. It also puts all Texas public university systems in line to have regular regent appointments made during legislative sessions, which would allow for immediate scrutiny by lawmakers and would prevent governors from stacking boards with off-year appointments that could take more than a year to be confirmed.
The bill would not prevent a governor from appointing regents in off years because of a resignation or death.
Wednesday’s vote came a day after emails sent by Perry to several University of Texas System regents in March became public. In the emails, Perry dismissed the regents’ critics as “charlatans and peacocks”
While most senators shrugged off the name calling, Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Laredo Democrat and one of Powers’ chief defenders, said she was “very disappointed” by its tone. Zaffirini said the email shows Perry has been involved in pushing what she considers a “rogue” agenda by some regents.
Next Tuesday, the Senate is expected to consider the appointment of two new University of Texas System regents, Houston oilman Jeff Hildebrand and McAllen attorney Ernest Aliseda, and the reappointment of regent Paul Foster of El Paso.
Sen. Kel Seliger, chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee and sponsor of the measure, said he hasn’t been told by Perry’s office if the governor plans to veto the bill or let it become law. To guard against a potential veto, the Senate put the same language into a bill Perry has said he wants: a measure that orders universities to offer fixed-rate college tuition.
Sending the bill to Perry on Wednesday starts the 10-day period in which the governor must make a decision. If he vetoes the bill, the Legislature has until the end of the session May 27 to vote to override his decision. Perry’s office has not publicly indicated what he will do.