Challenged Vetoes Leave $200 Million in Limbo

With varying degrees of concern, a smattering of government offices and institutions around the state are waiting to learn the fate of more than $200 million in funds that the governor might — or might not — have excised from the state budget.

Gov. Greg Abbott at the Texas State Prayer Breakfast in Austin on May 4, 2015.

With varying degrees of concern, a smattering of government offices and higher education institutions around the state are waiting to learn the fate of more than $200 million in funds that the governor might — or might not — have excised from the state budget.

The Legislative Budget Board is challenging several of Gov. Greg Abbott’s line-item vetoes, arguing in a July 21 letter to Comptroller Glenn Hegar the governor has no authority to veto some of the items because they were included in budget riders. The challenged vetoes include funds for public projects and money for research at colleges and universities.

"The Comptroller’s Office is reviewing the documents provided and working to determine next steps," spokeswoman Lauren Willis said Thursday.

Abbott is pushing back against the challenge, even encouraging potential political donors to help.

“Unelected bureaucrats want to strip Governor Abbott of his line-item veto authority in order to grow government and increase spending and debt. Join our fight with a contribution!” his campaign wrote in an email Wednesday that linked to his donation page.

Abbott has repeatedly boasted he cut off $386,000 meant for the Southern Regional Education Board, a nonprofit that helps states develop education policies, that would have been used "to finance the promotion of Common Core," a charge the Board has denied.

The largest item vetoed would have provided $132 million to build a new state office building in San Antonio to replace the G.J. Sutton State Complex.

"The renovation project was intended to play a major role in the revitalization of the East Side and would have been an enormous boon to the City of San Antonio," state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, wrote in an email to the San Antonio mayor and city council last week. "I find Governor Abbott's unprecedented and possibly unconstitutional actions deeply worrisome."

Martinez Fischer encouraged the city to consider legally challenging Abbott's veto if necessary.

Some of the universities affected by Abbott’s vetoes say the funds in limbo are critical for important research initiatives.

Abbott vetoed $5 million in funding for University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Identity, which studies identity security and privacy issues. Most of the center's budget last academic year — $2.5 million of $2.8 million — came from state appropriations, UT Austin spokesman Gary Susswein said. He said it's too soon to tell how much of an impact the governor's veto would have on the center, adding that the center will seek funds elsewhere if it doesn't receive the state money for 2016 and 2017.

Also vetoed was $1 million for Stephen F. Austin State University’s Waters of East Texas Center, which studies water resources and supply in the state.

The state money was expected to make up the center's base budget, while money for individual research projects comes through grants, which Ken Farrish, the center's coordinator, said aren’t a stable source of money.

“It would be almost essential to have some staff people that are here all the time to give us continuity we need to produce really quality research,” Farrish said.

Abbott also vetoed $1 million allocated to the state Water Development Board to award grants to private projects aimed at water conservation education, the same amount the board was awarded for the initiative last legislative session. The state agency said it did not request the funding and, if the veto stands, the loss of the funds will have “no impact.”

"This $1 million was for projects outside the agency,” spokesman Andy Saenz said, adding that the agency already spends far more on existing conservation education programs. “This $1 million is a really small amount of money in comparison with what the agency does across the state.”

Saenz said he believed a private interest group may have requested that the funding be allocated to the agency.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin and Stephen F. Austin University are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Aman Batheja contributed to this report.