Buried Treasure: State Budget Hides a Mystery

Lawmakers approved giving $200,000 to a community college that doesn't want it to fund a maritime museum that doesn't exist, and now the Legislative Budget Board may scuttle Gov. Greg Abbott's bid to reclaim the loot.

La Salle's Expedition to Louisiana in 1684, painted in 1844 by Jean Antoine Théodore de Gudin. La Belle, left, sank in present-day Matagorda Bay.

It is a mere drop in the fiscal ocean, just $200,000 in a state budget totaling more than $200 billion.

But the tiny amount of money lawmakers set aside this past session to fund a maritime museum on the Texas coast has spawned an oversized mystery. It seems to have attached itself like a barnacle to the ship of state with no one's knowledge, discovered only when Gov. Greg Abbott tried to scrape it off.

When finally passed, the 2016-2017 Texas budget allotted the $200,000 to Del Mar College — a community college in Corpus Christi — to fund a maritime museum. But the college didn't ask for the money. It has no maritime museum. It has no plans to start one.

“This is some kind of clerical error,” said Melinda Eddleman, a spokeswoman for the college. 

Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, whose district encompasses Del Mar College, said he had no knowledge of the budget item until the college president called him in June asking why the state was giving Del Mar money for a maritime museum.

“Neither one — me nor the president of Del Mar — knew anything about it,” Hunter said. “We were both taken aback.”

So who did ask for it?

House Appropriations Chairman John Otto, R-Dayton, who oversees the committee that added the Del Mar funding, declined to comment through a spokesperson.

Legislative Budget Board spokesman R.J. DeSilva deferred comment to the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, which oversee the drafting of the state budget. Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson deferred comment to Otto.

When the budget reached Abbott, he vetoed the funding, noting in his veto statement that the college didn't want the money.

However, Abbott’s rejection of the funding no one wanted for the museum that doesn't exist is among several vetoes the LBB now says are invalid.

The LBB is challenging some of Abbott’s line-item vetoes, arguing in a July 21 letter to Comptroller Glenn Hegar the governor has no authority to veto the items because they were included in budget riders.

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

The challenged vetoes include funds for public projects and money for research at colleges and universities. The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

The state does have an official Texas Maritime Museum in Rockport, about 35 miles from Del Mar College. But Kathy Roberts-Douglass, the museum's CEO, said she could offer no insight on the mystery budget item.