Colleges Win on Election Night

Voters in Texas back expansion of research universities, while tax measures that higher ed opposed fail in Maine and Washington.
November 4, 2009

Several voter ballot measures went the way college officials had hoped on a generally quiet off-year election night.

Among the developments:

  • Voters in Texas strongly endorsed a constitutional amendment that will create a $500 million fund designed to help turn seven institutions in the state into top tier research universities.
  • Voters in Maine soundly rejected a ballot question that would have severely restricted state spending, including on higher education. Based on early results, voters in Washington State appeared headed to do the same, according to local news reports.
  • Based on unofficial results, voters in Oregon's Deschutes County appeared to have approved a $41 million bond issue for Central Oregon Community College, while those in Monroe County, Pa., were projected late last night to have rejected a referendum to raise $31 million to pay for half the costs of a new campus of neighboring Northampton County Area Community College.

The year following a presidential election has the lightest agenda of any election night, with just two governorships (in Virginia and New Jersey), the mayorship of New York City, and just a handful of other races up for grabs. Higher education was not a significant issue in any of those races this year.

But voters in several states decided issues in which colleges and universities had a significant stake. In Texas, they overwhelmingly approved an amendment that is part of a larger effort to elevate more institutions into the top national tier of research universities.

The change in the Texas Constitution will transfer $500 million from a largely dormant existing fund into a new National Research University Fund, which will spin off money -- about $25 million a year -- to hire faculty members and for other purposes at the seven institutions: University of Texas campuses at Dallas, Arlington, El Paso and San Antonio; Texas Tech University; the University of Houston and the University of North Texas.

"Tonight's passage of Proposition 4 sends this important message: Texans understand that more nationally recognized research universities will help retain Texas-grown talent, recruit top researchers who will generate billions of dollars in economic growth, and create more high-paying, permanent jobs," the former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby, who heads the advocacy group Texans for Tier One, told the Austin American-Statesman.

Voters in Maine and Washington, meanwhile, appeared to have defeated amendments that would have, in slightly differing ways, limited the amount of state tax revenue that could be spent on various priorities rather than returned to taxpayers. A Taxpayer Bill of Rights amendment like the one on the ballot in Maine hamstrung the state government in Colorado (before it was suspended in 2005), to the dismay of college leaders there, and university and community college leaders in Maine fought its measure aggressively.

"Maine's community colleges are severely under-funded and stretched things, unable to meet the growing annual demand by Maine employers for skilled workers or to serve all those in Maine who seek an affordable entry point to higher education and a more prosperous future," the Maine Community College System said in a resolution opposing the measure this fall. "By locking in the budget cuts of 2008 and 2009 for years to come, TABOR will make it much more difficult for the community colleges to address Maine's significant need for a more highly skilled workforce, putting the state at a severe disadvantage when competing for new, good paying jobs."

After the vote, John Diamond, director of public affairs for the University of Maine System, said: "Chancellor Pattenaude and the board worked hard to communicate the consequences of TABOR's passage on tuition rates and higher education in general. I think Tuesday's vote reflects the public's recognition that while there are legitimate concerns about taxes and spending, TABOR-type restraints are not the answer for Maine."


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