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Lawmakers Point Fingers Over Failure of UNT Law School

By Shelley Kofler, KERA News Director

Dallas, TX – UNT Law School - How It Died In Austin

Two Dallas democrats are blaming each other for failed legislation that would have created the UNT Law School in Dallas. KERA's Shelley Kofler recaps the debate in Austin and examines accusations being traded by Senator Royce West and Rep. Yvonne Davis.

With three days left in the legislative session, and hundreds of bills awaiting a vote or sudden death, Senator Royce West used a time-honored technique to move the UNT law school forward. He got permission from the sponsors of a property rights bill to tack on the UNT measure for a House vote. This was the second session in which West was asking lawmakers to authorize North Texas' first public law school, to be located in Dallas' old city hall building. The city would donate the property. Former opponents including private law schools agreed to back off from a fight. Area chambers were cheerleading the effort. And West thought all of the Dallas lawmakers were on board.

State Senator Royce West:
It was my impression that all of us, the entire Dallas delegation was supportive of creating a comprehensive university in the Southern part, in the city of Dallas.

But there was a hitch. Rep. Yvonne Davis. Her house district in Southwest Dallas County overlaps West's senate district, and West admits the two of them have clashed in the past. Davis wanted the property rights bill strengthened to ensure that when cities seized property in blighted areas the land owners would be paid enough buy replacement property elsewhere. Otherwise she would work to defeat the property rights bill and the UNT law school with it.

Property bill sponsors Senator Kyle and Representative Bill Callegari, both of Houston, say they worked most of a day drafting and redrafting language to give Rep. Davis what she wanted. But Janek, says he could never figure out what that was.

State Senator Kyle Janek:
She could never give us the language she needed. At one point I offered language and she said you're talking too fast. This isn't clear. So I came back in an hour and a half.

Then, just when Janek thought there was an agreement, Rep. Davis raced toward a House microphone. Dallas Democrat Raphael Anchia, realizing her intent, blocked the mic. She then tore to the front of the chamber, and claimed a portion of the UNT measure was improperly added to the legislation. Her procedural point of order killed the property rights bill and everything attached to it. Which meant UNT would have to wait until the next legislative session in 2009 for permission to build a law school.

UNT Chancellor Lee Jackson, watching from the House gallery was stunned.

UNT Chancellor Lee Jackson
I am deeply disappointed. We believed Rep Callegari and Senator Janek were going out of their way to accept a compromise.

Senator Janek was shocked.

I don't know what else I could have done. To this moment I scratch my head.

Since Wednesday of last week KERA has requested an interview with Representative Davis so she could explain her intentions. She instead distributed what she's calling an open letter that blames the Senate and/or Senator West for what happened. She said West: would not and did not fight to protect the property rights of our citizens. And he did not get the UNT measure passed on its own merit.

West is firing back.

If people look at the facts they'll see Yvonne Davis decided to kill the property rights owners bill. She decided not to work with other people to accommodate the bill. You would think the entire Dallas County delegation (would get behind this).

Did you talk to Rep. Davis?

If Yvonne Davis had spoken to me I would have worked with her like I did on her number one legislative issue but she would not return my call a let me know what the issues were.

While Davis remains mum, West and others are left to wonder why the eight- term representative torpedoed one of the most important North Texas projects being considered in Austin. In doing so West says she put the dreams of many aspiring law students on hold. And denied the property owners she sought to help new protections in battling eminent domain.

For KERA 90.1 I'm Shelley Kofler.