Panel didn't vet Perry's fund transfer to A&MFriday, March 27, 2009
By EMILY RAMSHAW / The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN – When Gov. Rick Perry announced a $50 million grant to the Texas A&M University System this week, his aides said the decision to fund a new research center at his alma mater had been vetted by a 17-member committee.
On Thursday, Perry staffers said that they'd misspoken, and that the committee did not sign off on awarding the money.
The grant first came under fire this week when lawmakers learned how Perry had funded it – by moving money they'd earmarked for closing business deals into a technology fund. Perry's staff said a budget provision gave them the authority to move the money from the deal-closing Texas Enterprise Fund into the Emerging Technology Fund in January. And they said the grant had been recommended by the technology fund's advisory committee.
That was not true, but Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and then-House Speaker Tom Craddick did sign off on it.
While the grant "might prove to be a worthwhile investment, it is the lack of transparency or approval from the fund's advisory committee which has raised concern," said Rep. Jim Pitts, the Waxahachie Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee.
Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle said that by statute, the committee has no responsibility to sign off on a grant. She blamed the mistake on miscommunication among the governor's staff.
Castle added that it's not the first time the governor has made such an investment.
"Chairman Pitts did not seem to have any concern in 2003 when the state of Texas invested $50 million in the University of Texas at Dallas to enhance their engineering and computer science programs," she said.
Still, Castle said, a few of the committee members were briefed on the project, and, while supportive, expressed concern that the funds would drain the technology account. They had no concerns once the money was moved over from the Enterprise Fund, Castle said.
Lawmakers concerned about the grant say they have no problem with the Texas A&M University System's National Center for Therapeutics Manufacturing, which will help researchers advance production processes for new vaccines and drug therapies. They just have questions about the funding mechanism.
The $50 million grant is the largest ever from the Emerging Technology Fund. It's also the first time Perry's office has moved money from the Enterprise Fund to the Emerging Technology Fund.
On Wednesday, current House Speaker Joe Straus called the money "a large transfer" and said it "raises some issues."
A phone call to Craddick's office was not returned Thursday. Rich Parsons, a spokesman for Dewhurst, said the lieutenant governor signed off on the A&M grant because it appeared to be "an attractive and safe investment for the state of Texas."
Still, the A&M case looks like a "pay-to-play" scenario, said Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Public Justice, which tracks the influence of money in state politics. McDonald said in the months leading up to the award, A&M boosters ratcheted up their contributions to Perry, Dewhurst and Craddick – "apparently the three sole decision-makers in awarding the $50 million in taxpayer money."
Richardson Chamber of Commerce President Bill Sproull, who serves on the Technology Fund's advisory committee, confirmed that members were not asked to vet the A&M University System grant. He said it makes no difference.
"This project is very worthwhile," he said. "It's all legal. Given that it's a zero net sum on the Emerging Technology Fund, there was no harm done."