Wednesday, April 18, 2007

It's been a pretty good session for the GLO

There's one more addition to make to this 3 Letter Session: GLO.

The General Land Office is quietly having a very good session. The GLO has always been an active state agency, especially since it claims on the front page of the website that it's "the oldest state agency in Texas!", and over the years it has had an increasingly large role in the commercial development across the state. The reason: developers have looked to it to buy undeveloped land through the GLO, with its tax-exempt status. The more business the GLO gets, the larger the agency can get, the more staffers get paid. It's a win-win all around, and the deal allows the GLO Commissioner, Jerry Patterson, to gain better contacts and connections as he looks at potential vacancies in higher offices.

Looking at the website, the GLO is currently offering land for business parks in Houston and San Antonio, as well as land along Loop 410 in San Antonio. Want an office in Waco? They just cut the price in half!

While the GLO makes these deals, they are employing what seems to be a fairly successful strategy this session. They are pushing several (I'm counting nine) bills in the House that are designed to give it - sometimes specifically the commissioner - more authority and less transparency. Given that it's had a direct role in developing land across the state, is this really appropriate? Well, lawmakers are overlooking this question.

The House bills in question are carried by Democrats and Republicans alike, and they all but one have Senate sponsors. Some are seemingly innocuous: HB 1138 by Leibowitz would allow the GLO commissioner to accept grants. HB 2518 by Yvonne Davis would require the GLO to post information about the process of selling commercial property on its website. HB 1504 by Eddie Lucio III would expand the financing for the GLO's Save Texas History and Adopt-A-Beach programs.

There are other bills that would do a little more. HB 1556, which was delayed for the third time yesterday, would give the GLO Commissioner broad authority for granting "other interests in property," which the bill fails to define. HB 2819 by Ritter basically does the same thing, only that's just for coastal land. It's already over in the Senate. HB 3486 by Kolkhorst would allow the GLO to sell directly to a development corporation. HB 3560 by Swinford would abolish the Texas Building and Procurement Commission and forward all responsibilites to the GLO. The only guiding principle for these bills is whatever the commissioner determines is "in the best interests of the state."

The worst part about this is that it could work against local control: by not paying the property taxes on these lands, they're cutting back on the local tax base. The San Marcos mayor complained that local taxpayers have paid into infrastructure - utilities and roads - for projects in the city's ETJ, only to see the GLO buy up the land and turn around to make a buck from cutting a deal with private developers.

In addition to expanding the GLO's authority, there's also some legislation that would make the agency less transparent. HB 1853 by Corte, coming to the House floor today, would exempt the GLO, School Land Board, and Veteran's Land Board from providing notices or any information regarding the sale, purchase, or financing of real property unless a statute specifically says otherwise. HB 699 by Turner would make the identity of developers secret until all the deeds for the land are completed. Although this is pretty bad in itself, it opens up a loophole: all deeds for the transaction or series of related transactions would have to be completed. This means that if a large chunk of land is subdivided, one small piece can be left untouched, and therefore the developers would never have to be disclosed.

GLO staffers and the Commish himself have shown up to each committee hearing these bills have had. They're all neutral, but Jerry Patterson usually registers in favor of them. It makes sense for his future to protect and expand what he has now, but the strategy is also pretty smart: split all these issues into separate bills and get them passed piecemeal. I mean who's going to object to the GLO getting grants? But if all these bills were lumped into an omnibus bill and these issues were laid out at the same time, would it pass? Even if it would anyways, I'd guess there'd be a lot more fanfare than there is now.


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