Perry aide urged administrators to back higher education plan
By LIZ AUSTIN PETERSON, Associated Press Writer
AUSTIN — A government watchdog group is criticizing an adviser to Gov. Rick Perry for e-mailing dozens of university regents, chancellors and presidents to urge them to endorse his higher education reform plan.
The e-mail sent Sunday by Wayne R. Roberts, Perry's senior adviser for higher education, asks the administrators to "please formally endorse the Gov.'s proposals" on incentive funding, financial aid and the elimination of so-called special items from the budget.
"We need your support in testimony at all of the committees and in behind-the-scenes conversations with members," the-e-mail obtained by The Associated Press said.
Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, said he believes the e-mail inappropriately sets out "marching orders" for administrators. They need to have the freedom to tell lawmakers what's best for their own campuses, he added.
"It reads like an order to get on the bandwagon and sends a message that educators should only tell legislators what the governor wants them to hear," said McDonald, whose group tracks the effect of money and corporate power in politics.
Perry spokesman Robert Black would not respond to McDonald's interpretation, but said the vast majority of university chancellors and regents support the governor's plan.
McDonald was especially irked by a line about the elimination of "special items" — or earmarks on top of a university's base budget — that pay for projects such as an institute for environmental research at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. Some administrators have balked at the proposed cuts, saying special items make up sizable chunks of their operating budgets.
"The Gov. is not a fan of special items," Roberts said in the e-mail. "Discussing them at length and requesting new ones in lieu of addressing the statewide needs proposed by the Gov. has caused some concern."
One high-level university official, who asked that he not be identified because he fears repercussions for criticizing the plan, told the AP he considers the e-mail a message to stop pushing for special items for his campus. Still, the official said he would not change his position because about a fifth of his budget comes from special items.
Another top university official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Perry's office called members of his system's board of regents and told them to get system administrators to endorse the plan.
But Charles Matthews, chancellor of the Texas State University System, said he hasn't been pushed by the governor's office to promote the reform plan.
As for the e-mail, he said he didn't view it as "anything other than informational."
Black said Perry wants to take a statewide approach to funding higher education with the primary goal of graduating more students.
"If a university has a particular earmark or special project that they need funding for, they should bring that to the Legislature and argue its merits," Black said. "That's the process we have. Just to say 'Well it's always been funded therefore it should always be funded,' is ridiculous."
Texas law prohibits state agencies from using appropriated money to attempt to influence the fate of a legislative measure. It was not immediately clear if administrators who spoke out in support of the plan risked running up against the law.
The Texas Ethics Commission referred questions about the statute to the state attorney general's office, which in turn referred questions back to the ethics commission.