Reform the Land Office? Give it a reboot? Really?

The Old Land Office Building now serves as the Texas State Capitol Visitor's Center. Photo by John Jordan

In a rare interview with a reporter, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush pushed back against the claim he’s been out of the office a lot campaigning for his dad, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. 

In and of itself, politicians missing office time for political endeavors isn’t really news – it comes with the job.  For many decades, dozens of elected Texas politicos from both parties could be found swarming early primary states to support their choice for president. During my time as Texas land commissioner, I spent quite a few days in Iowa stumping for former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson — and he wasn’t even my dad.

The real news here is the unbelievable speed with which the George P. Bush administration has imploded one of the best and most highly regarded agencies in Texas government. Bush claims to have “cleaned up” things at the General Land Office. And his staff’s terse rebuttal to a story on his absences from the office stated he and his team would continue to be focused on reform and a “reboot” of the Land Office.

Considering the Land Office’s primary function and constitutional duty is to generate income for the Permanent School Fund, here are a few facts that suggest the office needed neither reform nor a reboot:

  1. From 1874 to 2003, the Land Office deposited $7.9 billion into the school fund. From 2003 to 2014, the Land Office deposited $8.1 billion into the school fund. More money was deposited during the last 10 years than in the previous 129-year history of the school fund.
  2. For the fiscal year ending Aug. 31, 2014, the Land Office set an annual record for school fund deposits — more than $1 billion. Remarkably, investment income unrelated to oil and gas revenue made up $461 million of that amount, a 71 percent increase over the prior year’s investment income.
  3. Among all state of Texas-managed investment trust funds like the Employees Retirement System, Teacher Retirement System, Permanent University Fund and Permanent School Fund-Texas Education Agency, the Permanent School Fund-General Land Office fund has performed well. For example, during the recession year of 2008, the Land Office-managed fund’s rate of return was over 8 percent, while all other funds lost money. In fiscal year 2012, the Land Office’s portfolio had the highest rate of return of all these funds: 12.2 percent.
  4. The Land Office became the “fixer” agency in Texas government. The governor’s office removed the responsibility of post-Ike disaster recovery rebuilding from two state agencies and gave it to the Land Office. The Legislature gave the responsibility for the Alamo to the Land Office. We became the “Ghostbusters” agency of Texas. Who you gonna call? The GLO, that’s who.
  5. During the last 12 years, the Texas Veterans Land Board, part of the Land Office, oversaw the greatest expansion of Texas veterans benefits since World War II. We doubled the number of state veterans long-term care homes and built the first state veterans cemeteries in Texas history. We also set an annual record of $1 billion in home and land loans for veterans, all at no cost to taxpayers.
  6. The Land Office quickly righted the financial ship of the 300-year old Alamo by bringing standardized financial controls and oversight and establishing the Alamo Foundation to encourage private donations. The Land Office so dramatically returned a sense of direction to the place that Phil Collins was moved to donate his massive collection of Alamo artifacts to the shrine. 

That’s not to say good things haven’t happened under the new administration as well. The Land Office secured a $32 million appropriation for the Alamo. Bidding on mineral leases is now done online instead of by placing sealed paper bids in a wooden box. Social media efforts have been ramped up, and some employees who weren’t pulling their weight have been moved on.

However, the terminations and “voluntary” departures have been so numerous and poorly handled that the Land Office is now an agency where demoralized employees are hunkered down waiting to be summarily fired and walked out of the building with a cardboard box containing a few personal belongings.

Telling assembled employees there are “internal threats” to the agency is not a motivating message, particularly when those assembled wonder, “Is he talking about us?”

Demanding loyalty oaths by asking key employees who they were loyal to, as has been described to me, is puzzling at best and demoralizing at worst.

The justifiable paranoia among Land Office employees resulting from the constant fear of being fired does not exactly engender mission success.

Crowing about budget cuts sounds like good Republican red meat — except for the fact that those budget cuts don’t save taxpayer dollars. The Land Office is the only agency in Texas government that makes billions from state assets like land and energy, and then funds its own budget from those revenues. 

Does it make sense for a successful energy/real estate investment business — which the Land Office essentially is — to cut its exploration and production, accounts receivable, asset inspection, or investment management staff when those employees are responsible for the record profits listed above, just so one can brag about the budget cuts to the voters during the next election? 

The successes of the previous dozen years were not attributable to me, but the product of the hard work, high morale and dedication of those Land Office employees who — during the 12 years I served as commissioner — did their job so well they made even me look good. 

I am eternally grateful for their efforts, and deeply saddened by the circumstances they find themselves confronted with today.

As the old saying goes, the worst reason for doing something is simply because you can. The second-worst reason is to implement change solely for the sake of change.

Disclosure: The Texas General Land Office was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2011. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Jerry Patterson

Former land commissioner of Texas