Control of the Texas State Cemetery is poised to change hands from one state agency to another under legislation being considered by the Texas Senate. But longtime wardens of the graveyard for state VIPs worry that the measure takes too much of their authority and gives it to bureaucrats.
House Bill 2206 by state Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, transfers oversight of the cemetery and its managing committee from the Texas Facilities Commission to the State Preservation Board, which Crownover said is better suited to oversee the 18-acre facility in Austin. The measure passed the House unanimously last month and has been recommended for the Senate's local and uncontested calendar, where it would probably be approved without debate.
But the people who have tended the hallowed grounds for the last decade argue that the measure doesn’t just shift oversight between agencies — it takes power out of the hands of the cemetery’s primary caretakers.
The cemetery is home to the graves of famous Texans like Stephen F. Austin and “American Sniper” Chris Kyle. Its superintendent, Harry Bradley, has run the cemetery since the mid-1990s, when then-Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock ordered an overhaul of the facility. In 1997, the Legislature created a three-member committee to supervise operations at the graveyard.
The new Cemetery Committee was placed under the authority of the Facilities Commission, but Bradley said the former lieutenant governor always intended for the committee and superintendent to run the show.
“Gov. Bullock told me face to face that they left us with an agency so someone could do our payroll, that kind of thing,” Bradley said last month at a House committee hearing. “He told me the Cemetery Committee is in charge of the Texas State Cemetery, not the agency.”
At the hearing, Crownover praised Bradley and the Cemetery Committee’s stewardship of the facility and said the move is about improving efficiency.
“We don’t want to take away their control and the things that they have done so well,” she said. “We’re just trying to get it as close to right as we can.”
Cemetery officials at the hearing said they have sparred with the Facilities Commission over which group has hiring and firing power over the cemetery’s nine-person staff. Jim Bayless, a member of the Cemetery Committee since 2003, said the committee was fine with moving from under the commission to the State Preservation Board, which already manages the Texas Capitol, the Governor’s mansion and the state history museum.
The initial version of Crownover’s measure did just that, and even included a clause that gave the Cemetery Committee “direct control of all operations” of the graveyard. But the bill was amended to give most of that control to the Preservation Board, leaving the Cemetery Committee only the authority to select Texans to be buried there.
“The sticking point basically boils down to the definition and scope of control that the [Cemetery Committee] members shall have over personnel and staff,” Bayless told the House Culture, Recreation and Tourism Committee. “It’s basically a question of who’s boss.”
But reservations from the Cemetery Committee and the superintendent haven’t slowed down lawmakers’ efforts to restructure the cemetery’s org chart. Crownover’s measure hurtled through the House unopposed in April and is likely to clear the upper chamber as well after passing a Senate committee without debate this week.
Backers of the legislation have emphasized publicly the noncontroversial portion of the bill that shifts oversight from the Texas Facilities Commission to the State Preservation Board. At the House committee meeting in April, Crownover said HB 2206 would place the cemetery under an agency with a "more closely aligned mission to that of the State Cemetery.”