Texas Tech Vet School in Amarillo Will Be a Product of Political Wrangling, 45-Year Journey

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Lubbock and Amarillo lawmakers say the state’s $4.2-million appropriation for a Texas Tech University veterinary school in Amarillo was the best they could do in a year when sluggish economic forecasts have left state agencies facing cuts.

The money represents a start-up investment from the state and marks a commitment from the Texas Legislature that the project will receive backing in the future, they said. The funds are supposed to at least cover planning costs and help Texas Tech raise private funds for the estimated $80- to $90-million school it wants to build near the current Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center here.

But the Texas Tech University System has said little aside from praising the appropriation, which is less than one-third of the start-up capital originally requested of the legislature, leaving questions about timing and accreditation unanswered.

University System Chancellor Robert Duncan is expected to visit Amarillo on Tuesday, shedding some light on the vet school’s future.

Duncan, however, won’t be meeting with Amarillo leaders, his office said.

The prior city council, which was wiped clean in May with a new slate of five members, was highly supportive of the project and endorsed a $15-million sales-tax rebate for the school.

While the new council seems to be on board, the next steps are unclear.

Amarillo Mayor Ginger Nelson expressed excitement in an interview after the appropriation, but she said the city had not been approached about an extension or a bigger subsidy.

“The timeline is a big unknown,” she said.

The Amarillo Economic Development Corp., an entity that manages a half-cent city sales tax earmarked for economic development, negotiated the deal. The terms require school construction to start by September 2018. To earn the full subsidy, the school also has to open by September 2022 and meet payroll benchmarks.

It is not clear if the Tech System, which originally aimed to open the school in the fall of 2019, will be able to make good on that agreement.

AEDC President Barry Albrecht, also fairly new to his position, said he met with university system officials in Amarillo about a month ago and expressed Amarillo’s willingness to support the school and, if needed, amend the agreement.

While many questions remain unanswered, the vet school has passed a big test by emerging from a legislative session in which lawmakers were more eager to cut than spend.

In January, State Comptroller Glenn Hegar seemed to dash the Tech System’s dream of a veterinary school. At the beginning of the legislative session, Hegar gave lawmakers a $104.9 billion revenue estimate for 2018-19, down 2.7 percent from his estimate for the previous biennium.

Tech had initially requested $16.75 million to build the vet school, but that mark was clearly not achievable, said state Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo.

“We entered session with such tight budget constraints,” Price said.

A month after the revenue estimate, the Tech System Board of Regents voted unanimously to back off its pursuit of vet school funding. Regents cited a need to protect other funding priorities in a tight budget year.

The vote added to speculation that Texas A&M University, which has the only vet school in the state, had derailed Texas Tech’s plans.

“In battle over veterinary school, Texas A&M routs Texas Tech,” read the headline to a March 3 blog post by Jonathan Tilove of the Austin American-Statesman.

State Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, said he was surprised by Texas Tech’s decision to hold off on pursuing its vet school.

“I speculated that they were getting pressure from somewhere because it was such an about-face,” Smithee said.

Smithee, who has been in the legislature since 1984, said a second vet school has long been needed in the state. Conversations about ending Texas A&M’s monopoly stretch back as far as four decades.

“Lots of us really felt like this really isn’t the board’s (regents’) decision to make,” Smithee said. “The Legislature is the elected body here, and it’s the body that appropriates the budget.”

While political wrangling was going on in the statehouse, a turf-war involving two crafty ex-state legislators was being waged outside.

Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp knows his way around Austin. His resume includes two terms in the House, one in the Senate and eight years as comptroller.

The A&M System quickly fired back after Texas Tech in December 2015 announced its intentions to build a school.

Sharp traveled to Amarillo in January 2016 to announce partnerships between its vet school in College Station and other system schools.

Texas Tech System Chancellor Robert Duncan took a contrasting, understated approach.

Also versed in the inner-workings of the Legislature, Duncan represented Lubbock in the House from 1992 to 1996 and then in the Senate until 2014.

Duncan’s vet school pitch centered on a non-traditional “distributed” model he said would efficiently fill the state’s rural vet shortage. The model does away with a centralized teaching hospital and students instead go to veterinary clinics in the field for training. Duncan said using the model will foster relationships between students and rural veterinarians and save tax dollars by forgoing the construction of a teaching hospital.

The pursuit of funding for the vet school was paused just as the legislative session was gearing up, but Duncan laid the groundwork before the session started. He spent the legislative off-season in 2016 promoting the need for a vet school and struck the subsidy agreement with the City of Amarillo in the fall.

In a Lubbock Avalanche-Journal op-ed Jay Leeson, a Lubbock talk-show host, said Duncan shrewdly pulled back while the hard-charging Sharp self-destructed.

“Where Duncan had intuited refrain as the best course of action, his rival chose vigorous advance — and for Sharp, a pol who rarely loses, the decision to charge in the weeks leading up to the session proved to be the latest in a series of miscalculations,” Leeson wrote.

Among the missteps, Leeson said, was Sharp’s public spat with the House’s higher-ed chief, J.M. Lozano.

Before becoming chairman of the House Higher Education this year, Lozano, a Kingsville Republican, publicly asked if Sharp should keep his job after it was revealed Sharp had been having closed-door discussions about merging his system’s universities in Kingsville and Corpus Christi.

State Sen. Kel Seliger, Lozano’s counterpart in the Senate, credited Lozano with using his position to advocate for the vet school.

In another twist before the start of the legislative session, Sharp hosted Michael Quinn Sullivan, the head of Tea Party-aligned advocacy group Empower Texans, in the chancellor’s box at a Texas A&M football game.

News of the meeting may have sapped some of Sharp’s influence with the House’s moderate leader, Speaker Joe Straus. The House released the first draft of the budget months later with $5.75 million earmarked for the vet school.

Lawmakers from around the state mostly embraced the vet school proposal, said Rep. John Frullo, a Republican from Lubbock. Frullo said he thought the “hands-on” approach would help retain students in rural areas.

“It’s a lot easier to do a $500 operation on a little three-pound dog than it is to get up at 2 o’clock in the morning, when it’s 20 degrees, and drive 30 minutes to go get shoulder-deep in the back of a cow,” Frullo said.

Where the board of regents stepped away, lawmakers kept applying pressure.

The Senate’s preliminary budget earmarked $0 for the school, but that was because senators wanted to start by zeroing out all special-project funding outside regular funding formulas, Seliger said.

The Amarillo Republican said he helped state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, “shepherd” the House funding proposal through the Senate.

After Tech’s $15.75-million request had been trimmed to $5.75 million, lawmakers lopped off another $1.5 million during the House and Senate negotiations. When the dust settled, about $4.2 million remained.

Perry said he persuaded Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to prioritize the funds.

“I truthfully say it this way: Had I not went and asked for it, it would not have appeared in the budget,” Perry told the Amarillo Globe-News.

Patrick’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Perry told the Globe-News that Seliger’s role in the high-level Senate negotiating was minimal.

“It’s not that he wasn’t advocating,” Perry said. “He just didn’t have a voice in much of the process at that time.”

Seliger brushed off Perry’s remarks, saying he’d been working on a vet school with Duncan for a decade.

“It’s the time of year when politicians take credit for everything,” Seliger said.

“This one could be such a progressive move,” Seliger said. “It’s the sort of thing that could only be done if there is a lot of people pulling the cart.”

It’s a cart that has been pulled on a long journey.

It started its voyage in 1971 when the Legislature authorized a new vet school in Lubbock. However, it didn’t materialize for a lack of funding.

Talk started again in 2001 but led nowhere.

Now, more than 45 years later, the Tech System has $4.2 million in state funds at its disposal to get the school started.

Although that amount is less than 5 percent of the total estimated cost of the school and points to a long road ahead, it carries a lot of significance for Smithee, who has represented the southern half of Amarillo since 1984.

“It’s the end of a 30-year dream,” he said.

State lawmakers speak:

“I truthfully say it this way: Had I not went and asked for it, it would not have appeared in the budget,” Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock

“It’s the time of year when politicians take credit for everything,” Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo

“It’s a lot easier to do a $500 operation on a little three-pound dog than it is to get up at 2 o’clock in the morning, when its 20 degrees, and drive 30 minutes to go get shoulder deep in the back of a cow.” – Rep. John Frullo, R-Lubbock

“Lots of us really felt like this really isn’t the boards decision to make.” – Rep. John Smithee on Texas Tech University System regents voting to not pursue state funding

”We need a place for large-animal veterinarians to be able to train to meet the demands of West Texas, and if that’s not crystal clear, we may not have the right regents in place.” – Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster

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