Could Dan Branch’s conflicts of interest explain one of the most bizarre exchanges in the House of Representatives last session?

Yesterday, in an exposé by the Texas Tribune, it was revealed that Dan Branch has spent his legislative career shielding himself from scrutiny over his law firm’s lobby clients. It turns out that Branch, who was still working as a federal lobbyist for labor unions when he entered the legislature in 2003, is employed at a law firm that has been hired by the University of Texas and Texas A&M System. This seems like a pretty savvy move on the universities’ parts given that Dan Branch has been Chairman of the House Committee on Higher Education since 2009. Branch, in turn, has failed to scrutinize the growing controversy at the University of Texas that is presently boiling over.

The arrangement goes to explain why Branch found himself catching barbs last session in a very public way from his fellow members of House leadership as he presented a bill to create an “excellence fund” for “health-related institutions of higher education.”

On May 9, 2013 Branch went to the front microphone to lay out House Bill 2753. He presented it as a fund to benefit medical schools, particularly focusing on emerging medical schools like the one proposed in the Rio Grande Valley. But Branch quickly drew questions from some of the same circle of Straus committee chairs that are supposed to be his strongest allies.

House Administration Chairman Charlie Geren went to the back microphone to lambast the bill. Pretending to praise Branch for his hard work on the bill, Geren let loose that the bill had been illegally authored by Branch’s client:

“Mr. Branch has worked very hard on this, as well as the University of Texas all day and they’ve done a really good job. Oh, excuse me, they’re a governmental agency. They don’t do that.”

Geren continued, stating that Branch had told him that the bill was written by UT Southwestern Medical Center, which is in Branch’s neck of north Dallas.

Lest you think Geren had morphed into some sort of fiscal hawk, Geren made clear that his beef with the bill was that the University of North Texas Health Science Center wasn’t getting a big enough slice of the pie. The UNT center just so happens to be in Geren’s district.

Geren continued his attack on Branch, arguing “If UT Southwestern needs more money, let’s just appropriate it.” He revealed that the bill was a trick to set UT Southwestern up for more appropriations in 2015:

“Two years from now, this will be funded from general revenue through the appropriations process. And that’s what they’re going for. They want to get additional appropriations and this is a way to get it. The metrics are written for them. …In two years, this fund won’t have any money in it and we’re going to ask the State of Texas to appropriate the funds to then fill that gap. And UT Southwestern will continue to receive over 40% of the money that goes into it when it is money that comes directly from the state. If UT Southwestern needs more money, they should ask for more money.”

The exchange caused the Straus team to pick sides, some going to defend Branch while others joined Geren at the back microphone. Branch got support from Dallas County Representatives Angie Chen Button, Jason Villalba, and Bennett Ratliff, as well as Rep. Jim Keffer and soon-to-be-retired Representatives Diane Patrick and Jim Pitts, along with several Democrats.

On the other side, with Geren, were Ways and Means Chairman and Vice Chairman Harvey Hilderbran and John Otto.

Pitts took to the microphone first to defend Branch’s corrupt deal. His defense? The legislature does it all the time! Pitts argued:

“This isn’t something that is unusual in our budget. We do this for the four year institutions. We have a competitive knowledge fund just like this for four year institutions. They contribute some money and we give it back. This is exactly like what we do for the four year institutions.”

Pitts was interrupted by a question from failed comptroller candidate Harvey Hilderbran.

Hilderban: “What district do you represent, Mr. Pitts?
Pitts: “District 10. Ellis and Henderson County.”
Hilderbran: “Really?! I get confused. Sometimes I think you represent Dallas.”

The comment followed years of speculation that Pitts does not actually live in Waxahachie as he claims for political purposes but, in fact, lives in the Highland Park neighborhood of Dallas. Hilderbran went on to complain that his favored institution, the Texas Tech Health Science Center, wasn’t going to get enough of a payout from Branch’s fund.

The fighting did not end there however. After Hilderbran retired from the back microphone, Rep. John Otto rose to ask Branch again about the origins of the House Bill 2753.

Otto: “Chairman Branch, can you tell me where this idea came from … for the excellence fund?”
Branch: “This idea has been something we’ve been thinking and talking about in my office since before the last session, the 2011 session.”
Otto: “Are you aware of the two documents that UT Southwestern circulated before session dealing with this specific program? Weren’t those documents developed by them?”

The debate closed with statements of support from Democratic Rep. René Oliveira. The South Texas Democrat argued that Branch’s fund would benefit a new medical school in the valley. Charlie Geren returned to the back microphone to question Oliveira:

Geren: “Mr. Oliveira, do you realize that the medical school you’re going to get is never going to get a dime of this money? At least not in your lifetime or mine?”
Oliveira: “You’re probably right Charlie.”

When it came time to vote, the bill was voted down. But in typical Straus-fashion, a verification was called, votes were rallied, and the bill narrowly passed. The following day, Branch attempted to pass the bill by putting an amendment on it. In response Geren went to the microphone and accused Branch of “putting lipstick on a pig.” When Branch accused Geren of calling UT Southwestern a pig, Geren responded: “I’m not calling any of our institutions a pig. What I’m calling a pig is this piece of legislation that you wrote. Or, excuse me, that they wrote for you.”

On third reading the bill died for good with a tally of 62 Yeas to 73 Nays. Notable Team Straus member Drew Darby refused to pick sides, abstaining from the vote. Thus concluded one of the most bizarre episodes of the 83rd Texas Legislature, in which the liberal Republican leadership of the Texas House fractured itself and lost control of the agenda.

In the end, the taxpayers won a narrow victory with the help of some uncommon allies, and Dan Branch revealed that he was willing to go down in flames to carry his lobby client’s legislation.

Tony McDonald

Tony McDonald serves as General Counsel to Texas Scorecard. A licensed and practicing attorney, Tony specializes in the areas of civil litigation, legislative lawyering, and non-profit regulatory compliance. Tony resides in Austin with his wife and daughter and attends St. Paul Lutheran Church.