Funding for Texas’ nationally recognized courthouse restoration program was whacked in a last-minute cut by the Legislature, leaving the state unable to provide significant grants for two years, officials confirmed Friday.
In the final days of the regular legislative session in May, the appropriation for the Historic Courthouse Preservation Program was whittled to $4.2 million from the current $20 million.
The Senate had proposed $20 million for the program, and the House had allocated $10 million in its version of the budget.
But facing a long list of other state needs, including demands to pay for water-infrastructure projects, lawmakers familiar with the discussions said the program was cut in last-minute negotiations amid squabbles over funding for other initiatives, despite strong support in both legislative chambers.
“It’s very unfortunate that this has happened to a very popular and successful program,” said state Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, vice chairman of the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee that agreed to the cut in late May.
Matt Kreisle III, chairman of the Texas Historical Commission that administers the program, said the cut is baffling.
“When times were tough, we got $20 million for this program,” he said. “When times are booming, we get $4.2 million. It makes no sense.”
Since the program was established in 1999, 63 of Texas’ 254 counties have used the grant program to help restore their historic courthouses, spending more than $244 million in state funds and an additional $174 million of their own money to preserve the showpieces of many communities.
But many of the unrestored landmarks are in such disrepair that the courthouses collectively made the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2012 list of Most Endangered Historic Places.
Though once seen as little more than decaying architectural relics, many of Texas’ courthouses now anchor a downtown development and investment renaissance in many county seats.
Texas’ historic courthouses were built from 1860 to 1940, and they range in architectural variety from Art Deco and Victorian to Federal and Greek Revival styles.
The restoration program has garnered accolades from the National Trust and other national groups as an example of a state-supported preservation initiative that has returned multimillion-dollar dividends to local communities. First lady Anita Perry has embraced the program in recent years, attending several courthouse rededications.
Contending that the $4.2 million will fund little more than emergency work during the next two years, Kreisle said, “Our goal is to get this program back on track next session.”
Hinojosa has been a longtime champion of historic preservation programs across Texas, and several courthouses in his district have benefited from the program.
He said he was unaware that the program had been cut so significantly. “But a lot of things were happening late in the session, as we tried to get everything done,” he said.
State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said she was also disappointed. In her district, the Duval County Courthouse in San Diego, in South Texas, is among 75 counties that are on a list waiting for restoration funds.
“The needs are real,” she said. “If many of these counties don’t receive these grants, their courthouses cannot be restored.”
Zaffirini suggested that the Legislative Budget Board consider approving additional funding for the program until the Legislature convenes again in regular session.
According to state records, applications are pending for 20 grants for planning and emergency projects on Texas courthouses, along with applications for 55 restoration plans. Since its inception, 63 courthouses have been restored under the program, and 103 others are eligible for restoration and preservation funding.
The other 13 courthouses aren’t eligible, either because they aren’t 50 years old or because they are no longer used as courthouses and are now privately owned, officials said.
In Central Texas, courthouses in Williamson, Llano, Lampasas, Milam, Lee, Fayette, Comal and Kendall counties have been restored through the program. Courthouses in Bell, Blanco and Burnet counties are awaiting funding for their master plans. The Travis, Bastrop and Caldwell courthouses haven’t been restored under the program, according to state officials.
COURTHOUSE RESTORATION FUNDING: At a glance
2000-2001: $50 million
2002-2003: $50 million
2004-2005: $45 million
2008-2009: $62 million
2010-2011: $20 million
2012-2013: $20 million
2014-2015: $4.2 million
Source: Texas Historical Commission
Note: Funding for 2006-2007 was to be through federal funds that weren’t received, according to officials.