by Neena Satija
For his first step in what many expect to be a long political climb, Republican George P. Bush is pursuing an office that will require him to look out for Texas schoolchildren by extracting money from the very industries — oil and gas — that have fueled his family's wealth and political fortunes.
Polls indicate Bush is poised to coast to election as state land commissioner and take the helm of the General Land Office. The typically obscure agency is certain to draw more notice if Bush becomes responsible for butting heads with some of the state's most powerful and politically influential interests.
Key among the GLO's jobs is negotiating and enforcing leases for mineral rights on millions of acres of state-owned land. Royalties feed the state's $34 billion Permanent School Fund, which helps cover the state's share of public education.
"Our top job here at the General Land Office is to earn money for the school kids of Texas," outgoing Commissioner Jerry Patterson said in a statement last month, announcing that the oil boom had helped pump a record $1 billion into the fund during fiscal 2014.
Sometimes, earning that money means fighting with drilling and production companies.
"I sued them over price, I sued them over environmental issues, I sued them over royalty payments,” said Garry Mauro, a Democrat who was land commissioner from 1983 to 1999.
Patterson told StateImpact Texas in 2012 that he is negotiating with two oil companies that may have underpaid royalties by upwards of $100 million. The agency would not name the companies, and has been tight-lipped about such disputes. It named one lawsuit it is involved in regarding royalties but did not provide details.
An oil and gas investment consultant, Bush raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from Texas-based energy magnates before even announcing what office he would seek. The contributions provided campaign fodder for his Democratic opponent, former El Paso Mayor John Cook, who pledged not to take money from companies doing business with the GLO. (In the latest campaign finance filings, Bush had more than $3 million in cash on hand, while Cook reported just over $3,000.)
The latest Texas Tribune/University of Texas poll has Bush leading Cook by 18 points.
In an interview, Bush said past land commissioners fought with energy companies after taking campaign donations from the industry, and he expects to do the same.
“My team will be in the courtroom, if I’m elected, to hold private producers accountable," he said, adding that “an overwhelming majority of private producers of state minerals are honoring their obligations.”
Should he choose to run for a higher office in the future, a good relationship with energy companies may prove useful. "Oil companies have a long memory," Mauro said. “I’ve never had an energy client since I left office.”
The next land commissioner will also inherit tasks given to the GLO after goof-ups by other state agencies, including handling billions of federal dollars for disaster recovery, and overseeing the Alamo, which was transferred in 2011 after allegations of mismanagement by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.
Then there are some uncomfortable realities on the 627 miles of Texas’ publicly owned coastline. It is slowly disappearing under rising sea levels, and scientists say climate change is mostly to blame. In an interview, Bush said he's deeply concerned about the coast's erosion and vulnerability to storms.
The public nature of Texas beaches may also be an open question after a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that favored private beachfront property owners. While Bush said he supports the ruling, Cook opposes it. Patterson also opposes the ruling, though he said, “Whether the next commissioner supports it or opposes it, I don’t think it makes any difference.”