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Texas lawmakers battle with Land Office over transparency in Alamo restoration

Texas General Land Office Commissioner George P. Bush testifies before the Senate Finance Committee on Dec. 5, 2017. (Photo by Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune)

by Alex Arriaga | The Texas Tribune

Lawmakers who agreed earlier this year to dedicate tens of millions of dollars to update the Alamo are now asking for greater transparency about how the money is being spent.

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, whose General Land Office is the state agency overseeing the landmark's restoration, was grilled Tuesday by Senate Finance Committee members on what they said was a "convoluted" structure of nonprofits contracted for fundraising, maintenance upkeep and planning the future of the Alamo.

Over the past year, the Land Office, in partnership with the city of San Antonio, has developed a multi-million dollar master plan for the site, which includes preserving the Alamo Church and developing a museum to house a vast collection of Alamo artifacts donated by British rock legend Phil Collins. During their 2017 session, the Legislature allocated $75 million toward the upgrade of the site, in addition to $32.5 million allocated in 2015.

The project is an ambitious one — so ambitious, Bush told committee members Tuesday, that he didn't have the resources to hire enough staff to oversee it when he took office in 2015. Instead, a private, nonprofit endowment called the Alamo Endowment was created — with Bush as chairman of the board of directors — and a subsidiary of that endowment called the Alamo Trust hired nearly 70 staffers to maintain and oversee the site.

Because the Alamo Trust is a private organization, it and its staff aren't subject to the Texas Public Information Act. Some committee members told Bush on Tuesday that they would like to see Alamo staff working directly for the state for transparency's sake.

Bush said the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, previously caretakers of the Alamo, had a similarly private relationship with the state — not subject to the Texas Public Information Act. But committee members said one reason the group may have been unable to fully maintain the Alamo was a lack of funding. When the Legislature opted to fill that funding gap with taxpayer money, they said, more transparency was warranted about how that money is spent.

“The $75 million commitment was a commitment for the people of Texas, and it’s important Texans know how we spend that money,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound.

Disclosure: The Texas General Land Office has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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