The state Senate voted 21-10 Tuesday to transfer ownership of Lions Municipal Golf Course from the University of Texas System to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Senate Bill 822 now goes to the House, where Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, who has agreed to carry it, predicts a warm reception.
The measure’s author, Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, said Lions Municipal, also known as Muny, should remain a golf course in part for its historical significance. The National Park Service added the course to the National Register of Historic Places last year because it was one of the first municipal courses in the former Confederate states to be desegregated, if not the first to achieve that distinction.
Muny has been leased to the city of Austin for decades, but the UT System Board of Regents has long contemplated leasing it for more lucrative residential and commercial development — with lease proceeds benefiting UT-Austin — after the city’s rental agreement expires in May 2019. More recently, UT-Austin President Gregory L. Fenves has floated the possibility of transferring Muny to the city in exchange for unspecified city-owned land closer to campus.
The Senate’s vote on SB 822 did not fall along the party lines that often characterize the upper chamber’s stance on controversial measures. Thirteen Republicans and eight Democrats voted for the bill, while seven Republicans and three Democrats voted against it, including Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, whose district includes Muny.
“I have always supported the preservation of Lions Municipal Golf Course, but this bill isn’t the answer,” Watson said in a statement after the vote. “Our best long-term hope is for the city of Austin to control this land.”
Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, said the measure amounts to confiscation of university property without compensation. Estes said the state has clear title to such assets and is within its rights to transfer the course, noting that lawmakers shifted 18 sites from the Parks and Wildlife Department to the Texas Historical Commission several years ago.
Muny occupies 141 acres of the 350-acre university-owned Brackenridge tract in West Austin. Opposition to developing Muny, initially among golfers, neighborhood residents and green-space advocates, expanded when activists learned about the integration while researching the history of the course. In 2009, a Texas Historical Commission marker was installed to acknowledge the integration, which occurred without fanfare when city officials allowed two black youths to finish a clandestine round of golf.
“This is not just black history,” said Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas. “It’s American history.”
UT officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding the Senate’s action.
Fenves offered in January to extend the city’s lease for Muny after May 2019 — provided that the city would be willing to pony up lease payments that are closer to market value. Fenves testified before a Senate panel that the market value would be around $6 million a year, about 12 times the current rate paid by the city.
Another option mentioned by the UT president is to preserve Muny’s clubhouse and some other features, but apparently not the course itself. Larson, who will sponsor SB 822 in the House, said that would not be a satisfactory outcome, given the site’s civil rights history and the aesthetic and environmental values of sizable open space in the midst of the city.
“You have very little opportunity in these urban cores to preserve property like that,” Larson said.
The representative said his preference would be for UT and the city to work out an arrangement to preserve Muny. “But like Sen. Estes, I’m willing to follow through with legislation if UT is not willing to expedite a resolution with the city,” he said.
It seems unlikely that the university and the city could agree to potentially complicated terms before the legislative session ends May 29. And if the measure passes the House, it could still face a possible veto by Gov. Greg Abbott, who earned his undergraduate degree in finance from UT-Austin.
And even if the measure becomes law, it might not resolve Muny’s future.
“There’s nothing in this bill or state law that prevents Texas Parks and Wildlife from deciding it can’t afford to keep the golf course and not operating it as such,” Watson said. “In fact, the bill expressly acknowledges that possibility and provides that the property would revert back to the University of Texas System, putting us in the same position as today.”