The Permanent University Fund (PUF) isn’t part of most people’s decision when it comes to the upcoming governor’s race, but former Democratic congressman and presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke had an answer ready to go when asked about it at a recent campaign stop.
“West Texas, South Plains, the Panhandle are contributing extraordinary wealth into the Permanent University Fund,” he said. “All of which flows to A&M and UT. Nine of which comes to Texas Tech, the place where it literally originated. This is part of a larger problem of this region contributing the food, the fuel, the fiber, the resources that makes the rest of the state successful and then not getting the investment back from the rest of the state. So, we absolutely need to change that fund so that those disbursements also come to Texas Tech and other universities that could stand to benefit from it and to allow more students to afford to attend college here.”
The PUF is a very old part of the Texas Constitution that essentially handed the University of Texas system and Texas A&M huge chunks of land in the western part of the state to help generate wealth for the universities. In the Nineteenth Century, the land was deemed virtually worthless but contributed some money for the colleges.
However, once the oil boom began, suddenly the land that was part of the PUF became fantastically profitable. As of 2008, the PUF has nearly $9 billion in assets and controls over 2 million acres of land. The money comes mostly from oil, gas, mineral, and water rights.
O’Rourke is right in that the two university systems are currently the only ones who benefit from the largesse of the PUF, though that does include offshoots in the west such as UT El Paso and UT Rio Grande Valley. There is no doubt, though, that universities like Texas Tech could use some of the funds. The income for Tech in 2022 is estimated to be just over $1 billion, while UT is estimated to get $22 billion.
The PUF has received some scrutiny during the COVID pandemic. When the Texas legislature passed a $3 billion bond package to fund higher education in Texas, both UT and A&M were part of it. This raised anger from legislators who felt that the two systems were hogging all the resources while smaller universities were left out to dry.
“The Permanent University Fund kicks out almost a billion dollars a year that UT and A&M could use to build buildings or do bonds if they wanted to, but they come to us, and we give it to them again,” said Rep Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler) in October. “We just keep giving it to them, and they keep raising tuition. They keep raising fees. We’re drunk at the bar, and we pour another drink.”
Changing the PUF would require a constitutional amendment to be voted on by the Texas public. So far, it looks like O’Rourke is the only one calling for the change.