Elections 2022Statewide NewsBorder Wall, Alamo, Disaster Response Emerge as Key Issues in Texas Land Commissioner Race

In a race for a statewide seat that will likely stay red, Republican primary candidates diverge on natural resource leases and the border.
February 9, 2022
In a race to run the state’s oldest agency, history still matters.

Eight Republicans and four Democrats are running to replace George P. Bush as commissioner of the General Land Office (GLO), created in 1836 when Texas was still a republic. Like other statewide offices, the seat has long been under Republican control, a trend unlikely to change in November.

Despite the fact that Bush is not a contender in the race, nearly all of the Republican candidates criticized the outgoing administration — some more tacitly than others.

Out of the office’s wide breadth of responsibilities, the Republican candidates share a common focus on veterans’ affairs, natural disaster response, and historical preservation but differ most substantially on national security and the Permanent School Fund (PSF).

Duties of the Office

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The GLO’s basic duty is to manage land owned by the state. The agency’s other roles branch from this central task.

Dust seems to have only recently settled on some of these duties, which link the agency to the still-young history of Texas. In fact, current law still requires the GLO to employ a Spanish translator tasked with translating original property titles for Texas land into English.

State law also charges the commissioner with taking care of the Alamo, which became a political controversy under Bush’s administration. Further duties related to Texas history and heritage include the Save Texas History and Adopt-A-Beach programs, both under the GLO’s purview. In fact, the office uses money received from the Save Texas History program to create educational programming and resources for Texas history, by no means an apolitical task.

More meaningfully to most Texans, the GLO uses the money it earns from state land to fund public schools. Revenue from leases, chiefly for oil and gas, goes into the Permanent School Fund that the legislature created in 1854.

The GLO also offers land loans and other services to veterans through the Veterans Land Board.

National Security

The Republican candidates disagree over how the GLO can actually influence national security.

Texas has already begun building a wall on state lands managed by the GLO. Some candidates, including former diplomat and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent Victor Avila, say they can continue this effort and work towards a complete wall.

Avila said his top priorities are securing the border, using the PSF to curb critical race theory in public schools, and building facilities to connect Texas veterans with GLO benefits. Photo courtesy of campaign.

“This office has already teamed up currently with the current Texas Land Commissioner with the governor in building a state wall which I’m not only going to continue but expand tremendously,” Avila said.

“On top of the state public lands, I’ve already met with a lot of our private homeowners, landowners, ranchers that are fed up with the traffic that’s coming in that’s illegal. And I’m not just talking about illegal immigration. I’m talking about armed cartel members patrolling their ranches… They want the state to help them, and they’re willing to donate their land.”

Outgoing state Sen. Dawn Buckingham (R-Lakeway) has a similar platform, calling border security a “number one” priority for the GLO.

“Most people don’t know that the first section of border wall was actually built by the General Land Office as a flood control levee project down around South Padre Island,” Buckingham said.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way, so obviously getting the wall built on state lands will be a top priority.”

Educator and veteran Tim Westley said he would “think outside of the box” with regards to a border wall strategy, “whether it’s a wall that’s been completed on those public lands or other ways to divert and discourage people.”

Armenta said his top priorities are ending land leases for foreign countries, increasing transparency, and establishing regional deputies to lead disaster response. Photo courtesy of campaign.

However, not all Republican candidates agreed that the GLO could do much to stop illegal immigration. Businessman Ben Armenta said the agency has very little control over the border and instead should focus on stopping foreign countries from using state land.

“Less than 5 percent of the lands that GLO manages are along the border, and the vast majority of those are in parts of our border that you cannot traverse. What we do know is that there are foreign entities who have been leasing state lands, and the public doesn’t have visibility into this, and we need to put an end to it,” Armenta said.

“We will identify all foreign entities, and any of those that are connected and tied to a foreign government we will get out of those contracts.”

Businessman, veteran, and former judge Don Minton agreed, calling out “cheerleading” by Bush and the other candidates over the border while China sets up shop in the GLO’s backyard.

“There’s some real intricacies with these oil and gas leases and these other mineral extraction leases, these deals that we need to cut on behalf of the State of Texas, including some of the thing we want to do, like make sure that we keep the Chinese Communist Party from having ownership interest and leases that are on Texas public lands,” Minton said.

“When people stand up and cheerlead about ‘I’m going to secure the border,’ that’s someone talking politics, okay?”

Permanent School Fund

Since the GLO funds schools with land leases, the Republican candidates’ plans for the PSF vary in focus in a wide range from the ground to the classroom. Minton and attorney, surgeon, and veteran Jon Spiers both presented plans to diversify the PSF portfolio beyond oil and gas to include rare earths as well.

Minton, who is an executive in a mineral extraction company, said the GLO is currently overlooking the state’s abundant supply of rare earth materials, a potential revenue source that could help lower local school taxes by providing more state funding.

Minton said his top priorities are expanding PSF leases to include rare earths, streamlining veteran benefits, and improving the Alamo and veterans’ cemetery sites. Photo courtesy of campaign.

“We need to continue to expand, responsibly, but expand those oil and gas leases where we can to get more money for the Permanent School Fund. But secondly, we also need to expand the breadth of those leases to not just include oil and gas but reach out and get…all these additional rare earth elements that are in critical short supply at the national level[.] We are flush with those minerals in Texas lands,” Minton said.

Spiers offered a similar plan, further suggesting that the state use some of its offshore resources.

“We want to make certain that we support our oil and gas industry, but we also need to recognize that we have tremendous stores of rare earth elements here in Texas. We need to be judicious and careful how we utilize those, but we can certainly enter into some partnerships to use that resource,” Spiers said.

“We also have some significant offshore resources that we can use in new ways. All of these to actually make the Permanent School Fund much more effective for our Texas schoolchildren.”

Spiers said his top priorities are increasing transparency, speeding up disaster response, and expanding PSF leases to include rare earths. Photo courtesy of campaign.

Texas maintained its ownership of government land when it entered the Union in 1845. To this day, Texas is one of the only two exceptions to federal offshore land law, which limits states’ rights to submerged land resources only within three nautical miles from the coastline. Texas retains ownership of submerged land within three marine leagues of the coast, or about 10 and a half miles.

Avila proposed using the agency’s leverage to influence education.

“I will be challenging the money and stepping in front of those resources that go to the school systems that continue to push critical race theory in our schools, as I am against that,” Avila said.

Buckingham focused her attention on the Biden administration, promising to defend the oil and gas industry.

“From the oil and gas perspective, as the largest mineral owner in the state, and actually the steward of millions of acres of state land, we’re going to be in a very unique position to very loudly fight against the Green New Deal policies of the left,” Buckingham said, pointing to President Joe Biden’s plan to put nearly a third of American land and water under a federal conservation easement by 2030.

Following Bush: Disaster Response, Veteran Land, and the Alamo

Although the promise of a new future may be America’s commonest campaign trail motif for underdogs facing incumbents, every Republican candidate in the open race criticized the current management of the GLO, especially with regards to responding to natural disasters, distributing veterans’ loans, and managing historic property like the Alamo.

“A big component of this job is disaster recovery, which I think we have seen some glitches of in recent years,” Buckingham said gently.

“We need to figure out how to more effectively and more efficiently serve Texans once they have been in the throes of a major disaster such as a flood or hurricane or a big fire.”

Minton was less diplomatic.

“The current commissioner was more concerned with making Sylvester Turner look bad in Houston,” Minton said.

“There was more joy and happiness of making that look bad, that Houston mismanaged the funds, instead of stepping in and saying, ‘Hey, you’re screwing up. We’re going to help you fix it because at the end of the day we want to make sure that this $2 billion gets distributed to those that need it in Texas for disaster relief.’ Now, that money didn’t make it to my father in time… For three years, from 2017 to 2020, he busted his butt [rebuilding] his house and it put him in an early grave.”

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the GLO bypassed Houston and Harris County, awarding funds to several other counties and some cities besides Houston in Harris County. The decision received bipartisan backlash.

Spiers said he would pursue a more direct method of disaster response to outpace the federal government.

“I would like to redesign the way that we deliver disaster recovery so that we’re much more nimble. We don’t wait on FEMA, we don’t wait on Housing and Urban Development. We actually spring into action before they’re here, before they have processed their paperwork,” Spiers said.

Armenta proposed the most drastic disaster response redesign out of his competitors, calling for a more localized system.

“We’re going to have regional deputy commissioners that are from those areas of Texas that build strong relationships with the local leaders and the constituents and can address more proactively the needs that they have there,” Armenta said.

Besides Buckingham, all responding candidates said that one of the GLO’s most pressing challenges will be reforming the veteran loan system or improving veterans’ homes. Westley, Avila, and Spiers also proposed building more state veteran cemeteries to bring veterans’ remains closer to their families.

Touting backgrounds in historical preservation, both Buckingham and Westley said management of the Alamo is a key issue for their campaigns.

Buckingham pointed to her record in the legislature and her efforts in the court against moving the Alamo cenotaph, a key part of the original Alamo renovation plan led by former San Antonio city councilman Roberto Treviño, Bush, and Alamo Trust.

Buckingham said her top priorities are defending the Alamo, protecting oil and gas, and building the border wall. Photo courtesy of campaign.

“I’m the one who threw down the legal challenge that kept the cenotaph where it should be — out front — instead of being moved around. Also the only one who passed any legislation this session protecting any of our markers, monuments, and medallions,” Buckingham said.

Westley, whom former Republican Party of Texas chairman Allen West hired as party historian, cited his own activism to protect the Alamo cenotaph and other monuments around the state.

Westley said his top priorities include a faster disaster response, more veterans’ homes and cemeteries, and better protections for the Alamo and other monuments. Photo courtesy of campaign.

“I’ve been on the front lines with grassroots activists to protect not only the Alamo, but as far as San Jacinto, and monuments and history as a whole,” Westley said.

According to a recent University of Houston poll, Buckingham leads the field of candidates among primary voters, though the great majority of voters remain unsure. 80 percent of respondents said they didn’t know which candidate they would choose, and 4 percent said they would vote for Buckingham.

Buckingham has the endorsements of former president Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), former governor Rick Perry, and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick. She also enjoys a strong fundraising lead.

Rufus Lopez could not be reached and Weston Martinez did not respond for comment.

Martinez, who was appointed by Governor Rick Perry to the Texas Real Estate Commission, says on his campaign website that his three top priorities are saving the Alamo, building the border wall, and protecting elections. He ran for Texas Railroad Commission in 2016 and 2018 and ran for Bexar County Commissioners Court in 2020.

Democratic candidates Jay Kleberg, Michael Lange, Sandragrace Martinez, and Jinny Suh also did not respond for comment.


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Isaiah Mitchell

Isaiah Mitchell is a reporter for The Texan, a Texas native, and a huge Allman Brothers fan. He graduated cum laude from Trinity University in 2020 with a degree in English. Isaiah loves playing music and football with his family.