A rider amendment in the state transportation budget to provide $15 million in funding to expand the runways at the Ector County ‘Schlemeyer’ Airport in Odessa has generated a mystery regarding who wanted the funding, and what prompted the Texas Legislature to pass it.
Transportation funding experts say the amendment will ‘cannibalize’ the funding for improvements at other local airports to pay for the runways at Schlemeyer to be lengthened, allowing large commercial-sized jets to operate from Schlemeyer and will cause projects currently planned at other county and municipal airports to be canceled.
Odessa Headlines received a tip regarding the budget amendment last week, and after reaching out to the Ector County Judge, multiple county commissioners, and members of the airport board, every official stated that they were completely unaware of the amendment and learned of its existence only from being contacted by Odessa Headlines.
The Ector County Airport Board then held a meeting at Schlemeyer Airport last week, where State Representative Brooks Landgraf (R-Odessa) told the officials that he had nothing to do with the passage of the budget amendment, rather, the amendment came at the request of the Department of Public Safety (DPS) who worked through a member of the House Appropriations Committee to get the amendment passed.
Landgraf went on to describe how the runway expansion was part of a DPS plan to make the Odessa airport a base to run high altitude border-security surveillance operations from the airport, and that due to the large size of the DPS airplanes it would be necessary to lengthen the runways.
After the meeting, Landgraf told Odessa Headlines that the appropriations committee member that obtained the funding at the request of DPS was Chairman Greg Bonnen (R-Angleton), and further elaborated on the reasoning behind DPS selecting Schlemeyer as the headquarters of their border security operations – which included factors such as aviation fuel allegedly being significantly less expensive at the airport, and that DPS already based other aviation operations from there.
Several county officials have said that while they do not want to interfere with anything DPS or other law enforcement entities may need to ensure the border is secure, they are disappointed that they have yet to be contacted by anyone at DPS regarding their plans to expand the airport.
The officials are also concerned about the unfunded mandates the expansion will place on Ector County taxpayers which could total in the millions, and say they are disappointed that residents and aviators who will be impacted by the expansion haven’t been allowed to weigh in.
Odessa Headlines reached out to other lawmakers, including Rep. Greg Bonnen, seeking comment regarding their knowledge or involvement in the passage of the amendment.
Bonnen has yet to respond to our request for comment.
A legislative staffer in another legislative office who wished to remain anonymous stated that from their memory the amendment was brought by a lawmaker to the state budget conference committee at the last minute.
The staffer went on to say that while they couldn’t remember which lawmaker brought the amendment, they knew it wasn’t someone who served on the appropriations committee, and that whoever brought the amendment had to “cash in all of their political chips” to get the conference committee to take an amendment like that at last minute.
Then, on Monday, a county official told Odessa Headlines that a press conference was to be held at Schlemeyer airport regarding the funding, however, the press conference wasn’t being held by the county, rather, the conference was being called jointly by the airport Flight Base Operations company (FBO) Texas Aero, an Austin based lobby firm ‘Hillco Partners’, and State Rep. Brooks Landgraf.
Shortly after arriving ahead of time for the press conference, Headline’s reporters were informed that the press conference had been canceled.
Landgraf was asked about the Airport press conference by reporters during a Midland luncheon later that afternoon and he denied having any knowledge of one having been scheduled to occur or having any involvement with it.
Worth noting, public lobby records provided by Transparency USA show that the airport FBO Texas Aero hired the Austin-based lobby group Hillco Partners to lobby the Texas Legislature.
While lobby records do not show the exact amount lobbyists are paid by clients, they are required to reflect the minimum amount and the highest potential amount the lobbyist was paid by the client to influence lawmakers.
The Transparency USA data shows that Hilco has been paid between $71,580 and $199,870 by Texas Aero to their lobbyists.
County officials tell Odessa Headlines that Texas Aero has a contract with the county to operate the airport reception building and receives profits from aviation fuel sales at the airport, among other things.
Odessa Headlines reached out to Texas Aero for comment regarding this story. As of publication, they have not responded.
DPS officials have also been asked to confirm whether the department played a role in requesting the legislative funding. They have also not yet responded.
The origin of the $15 million runway expansion amendment continues to remain unverified.