Legislators upset at being left out of UT System land purchase

Claire Allbright

The Texas Senate Finance Committee challenged UT Chancellor William McRaven Thursday over a UT System land purchase in Houston.

Originally announced Nov. 5, 2015 at a Board of Regents meeting, the $200 million, 332 acre purchase, left lawmakers frustrated as they were left in the dark about the system’s proceedings. 

“In all due respect, I don’t think you give a damn what the Legislature thinks,” state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said during the hearing. “I believe your style is it’s your way or the highway. The Legislature is not involved in your decisions.”

McRaven apologized, but said he wanted to keep the deal a secret, because he was worried the value of the land would increase. 

While no official plans for the land have been announced, McRaven said the land would not be used for a four-year university, but could house a research facility for all UT campuses, according to the Austin American-Statesman. At the time of his announcement, McRaven stressed Houston’s importance in the nation and internationally. 

“Too often university systems maintain the status quo because they’re forced to do so,” McRaven said. “We intend to stay a great system, and in order to do that you have to take some risks you have to make some gambles.”

Talk of the Houston purchase made it into the newly appointed regents confirmation hearing Thursday. 

Several senators, including Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said the regents need to be in contact with the Legislature and take their opinions seriously. Birdwell said the Legislature deserves to be respected and the Houston land purchase happened after last session had adjourned and the Legislature fell out of the loop. 

The regent nominees all said they would work to improve the relationship between the Board of Regents and the Legislature. Former Sen. Kevin Eltife, one of the nominees, said the system needs a plan for the land. 

“It makes no sense to me to go spend $200 million,” Eltife said. “You better take care of what you own before you build new things.”

Regent nominee Janiece Longoria said she would not be comfortable moving forward with the Houston development without the support of Houston legislators. 

The money used for the purchase came in part from the Available University Fund, which is defined in the budget as providing for support and maintenance, to pay debt service on bonds, to acquire land, to construct and equip buildings and other permanent improvements for eligible universities. 

“A purchase of this magnitude is certainly something that I would say is unique in the history of Texas,” Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said. 

McRaven agreed to make no further decisions about the use of the land until the new regents are confirmed. The Nominations Committee will vote on the regents next week, then their confirmation will go to the full Senate for a vote. The Finance Committee is schedule to meet everyday next week at 9 a.m.