The hard work and good luck of Texas Tech’s vet school

The harder the West Texas delegation worked to secure $4.1 million for Texas Tech’s proposed veterinarian school, the luckier they got.

And if Tech Chancellor Robert Duncan provided oversight of the hard work — at least initially, Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp provided the luck.

Upon Duncan’s 2014 hiring, Larry Anders, then-vice chairman of Tech’s board of regents, told Texas Monthly that Duncan’s keen understanding of how the Texas Legislature works was one of the prevailing reasons he was chosen. “In that arena, I believe, he’s unrivaled,” Anders said.

Sharp would prove Anders’ claim about Duncan true in the 85th Legislature.

Last summer, midway between the vet school announcement in December 2015 and the start of the legislative session in January 2017, the delegation was hard at work. In August, San Angelo state Rep. Drew Darby was in a key position on the Legislative Budget Board to help formulate an initial Texas House budget that would include a vet school appropriation.

“From the beginning, we were arguing the need for large animal vets in rural Texas and our colleagues were listening,” Darby said. “Speaker Straus saw the merit and was supportive from the start, and he directed staff to help. He never wavered from that position, despite early indications that the Senate would dramatically cut higher education special items in a down budget year.”

Darby, Lubbock’s John Frullo and Amarillo’s Four Price and John Smithee each had frequent discussions with the speaker’s office in the months leading up to the session.

By late fall, however, Darby recalls Tech’s vet school and dental school in El Paso (a top priority, in which Tech had tens of millions of dollars invested) were suddenly presented as an “either-or” proposition. In December, weeks before the session, when news broke that Tech was putting the vet school “on pause,” Darby stayed firm. “When asked whether to leave it in the budget or take it out, we said, ‘Leave it in there, hold the line!’ ” Darby told me, adding again that House leadership reinforced his position.

The late fall “either-or” proposition arose when Sharp, a 40-year Texas political pro, unleashed a widely discussed battalion of A&M donors to fight Tech’s vet school proposal as though it were an Aggie Alamo. 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. Mistakes that would bring the West Texas delegation a good bit of luck.

Earlier in the fall, on Sept. 28, Sharp hosted Michael Quinn Sullivan, a paid-for political activist and odious opponent of Straus and House leadership, in his chancellor’s box for the UCLA football game. The situation received immediate attention — and not the kind that a chancellor needing help to kill a vet school wanted. Especially from a House that was, from top down, embracing the merit of the delegation’s claims.

A week after the game (as discussed in this column on Dec. 19), Sharp apparently held a private meeting regarding the merger of Texas A&M-Kingsville and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. As the Texas Tribune’s Matthew Watkins reported, notes from the meeting surfaced. The result was a very public feud with state Rep. J.M. Lozano of Kingsville, in which Lozano called Sharp a liar and Sharp called Lozano gutless. Another result was a letter of public opposition to Sharp’s merger plans, which included the signature of state Rep. Todd Hunter of Corpus Christi, chairman of the powerful House Calendars committee.

Correlation doesn’t always mean causation, but political fallout for both the game and the feud seemed to come swiftly for Sharp once the session began. On Jan. 14, Quorum Report’s Scott Braddock wrote about Sullivan in Sharp’s box, the story included official documentation of box guests. On Jan. 18, the House released a proposed budget, which included a $5.7 million appropriation for Tech’s vet school. On Feb. 9, Lozano, a bright three-term representative without prior education committee experience in the House, was named chair of the House Committee on Higher Education.

From there, Aggie opposition began to subside and the confidence of House delegation members grew. But even as final passage of funding seemed more and more possible, they continued to brand their vet school cattle.

In the meantime, state Sens. Charles Perry of Lubbock and Kel Seliger of Amarillo moved in the upper chamber to ensure that a decision about vet school funding would be made in the Legislature — in Duncan’s arena — not on political battlefields outside of it.

Jay Leeson is, among other things, a writer and talk radio host in Lubbock and editor of Contact him on Twitter @jayleeson or by email.

This column first appeared in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal

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