Cheers and Jeers: The 2019 TX Legislative Session

The deadline for the Governor to veto bills has passed, so the 2019 Texas legislative session is finally … truly … wrapped up.  Below, you’ll find a summary of all the bills this session that impacted sustainable agriculture and local foods, from health department permitting to ag valuation, eminent domain, and groundwater law.

For each bill, whether it passed or not, we note the legislators who championed the issue. We also identify the “no” votes when there was a roll call vote, or when we could identify the opponents (some things die behind closed doors).

You can help support future reforms by holding your legislators accountable – both thanking them when they voted our way and talking with them about the areas of disagreement. You also can attend one of our upcoming regional webinars to discuss the Session and “next steps” with people in your area. LEARN MORE.

Leading the “champions” list is Representative Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin). He revived the dormant Farm-to-Table Caucus in the Texas House, and he sponsored two bills, joint authored several more, and spent a significant amount of his time talking with his colleagues about local food issues to generate support for the entire slate of bills. His staff, particularly Alejandro Pena and Alison Ross, also spent many hours working on these bills, and the entire office deserves our thanks.

Thanks also goes to all of YOU, the people on the ground, who called and wrote your legislators, donated to support our work, came to committee hearings, and spread the word. We made amazing progress this session, and this is just the start of what we can accomplish with your support!

To put the bills in context, consider that 7,229 bills were filed during this legislative session, and only 1,429 of them passed – that’s less than 20%.  Many of the bills that passed were either unopposed or had powerful industry lobby groups supporting them. Most of the grassroots organizations we know struggled to get even one bill through. Our success in passing 5 of our priority bills, as well as helping kill multiple bad bills, was truly remarkable. We can and will continue to fight for the changes that are needed to build a truly sustainable food system!

Note that the effective date for all of the bills is September 1, 2019.

 

FARFA’s PRIORITY BILLS THAT PASSED

Over the next three months, we will do in-depth analyses of each of these bills. FARFA’s sister organization, the Council for Healthy Food Systems, is also planning a series of workshops around the state to educate producers on all the local food laws and help them identify new opportunities for their businesses. And we will be producing a hard-copy booklet of key laws and regulations for our members, so join us and stay tuned!

Expanding cottage foods: SB 572 will expand opportunities for home-based food businesses, from farmers canning their excess produce to artisan food producers.  The bill expands the current cottage food law in several important ways:

  • Moves from allowing only specifically listed foods to allowing any non-potentially hazardous food (except meat-based products) to be made in home kitchens for sale to consumers.
  • Removes the limitations on where cottage food producers can sell their products, so that producers can connect with their customers at any location in the state so long as the sale remains direct producer-to-consumer. The bill also removes the ban on “internet sales,” but requires that if the sale is made over the internet, delivery must be in-person (so that the local nature of cottage food operations in preserved).
  • Allows multiple new categories of foods to be made & sold by cottage food producers:
    • Frozen fruits & vegetables
    • Pickled fruits & vegetables
    • Acidified, plant-based canned goods
    • Fermented vegetables

Note that these categories are subject to some very basic, simple requirements to ensure safety – we will cover in detail in a later post and in our members’ handbook.

SB 572 was authored by Senator Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) and Representative Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin). Both Senators made the expansion of the cottage food law a high priority for this session.  Representatives VanDeaver, Kacal, Lambert, and Moody joint-authored the bill, and Cecil Bell, Capriglione, Goodwin, Hunter, Lucio III, Oliverson, and Zweiner co-authored. On the Senate side, Senators Hall, Hughes, Schwerner, and Seliger co-sponsored with Senator Kolkhorst. Representative Noble was the only “no” vote in either chamber. The fact that it passed with only one “no” vote in the end obscures just how controversial the bill really was – it took a LOT of work to get it to the point that we could secure all those votes!

Capping permit fees for farmers’ market vendors: SB 932 limits the fees that local health departments can impose on farmers & farmers’ market vendors to a total of $100 per year per jurisdiction. While some jurisdictions, particularly in smaller communities, have reasonable permit fees, the larger towns appear to view farmers’ market vendors as a revenue source. Permit fees for people selling at markets are often $175 or more for each market and have run as high as $660 (Travis County) or even $2,080 per year (Harris County). SB 932 capped the fees at $100 per year, the same amount as is charged by the state health department for farmers’ market vendors within its jurisdiction. The bill was authored by Senator Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) and Representative Terry Wilson (R-Marble Falls), joined by Representatives Rodriguez, Lambert, and Longoria. Representative Ramos was the only “no” vote in either chamber.

Making sampling at farmers’ markets easier: HB 1694 will allow vendors at farmers’ markets to provide samples of their food to customers without expensive and burdensome permits. A 2013 law established reasonable basic sanitation standards for sampling at farmers’ markets, but numerous jurisdictions have ignored that law and required 3-basin sinks, hot running water, and more. And others have required separate permits – in addition to the permits already required for selling food – just to do sampling. HB 1694 clarified that local health authorities can enforce the basic standards in state law, but cannot add additional requirements or require permits and fees. HB 1694 was authored by Representative Stan Lambert (R-Abilene), joined by Representatives Rodriguez, Flynn, Harris, and Zwiener, and in the Senate by Senator Nathan Johnson (D-Dallas).  Representatives Cain, Hefner, Ramos, Stickland, and Toth voted “no.”

On-farm poultry & rabbit processing:  HB 410 creates a micro-producer exemption so that small farmers can process up to 1,000 poultry and/or 500 rabbits annually on-farm without building an expensive facility. This bill provides important opportunities for small farmers, as well as increasing consumer access to locally raised meat! HB 410 was authored by Representative James White (R-Hillister) and Senator Nathan Johnson (D-Dallas).  Representative Bailes and Senators Perry and Flores co-authored. Representatives Buckley and Springer were the sole “no” votes.

Local Health Department Better Communications Bill:  HB 2107 requires local health departments to answer farmers’ & food businesses’ questions about what the law requires and prevents farmers from being fined if their inspector comes up with a different interpretation. The bill was authored by Representative Giovanni Capriglione (R-Southlake) and Senator Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola).  Representatives Rodriguez, Shaheen, Kacal, and Lambert joint authored the bill. The vote was unanimous in both chambers.


MORE GOOD BILLS THAT PASSED

Legalizing hemp:  The 2018 Farm Bill removed the federal prohibitions on hemp, but Texas state law still prohibited the growing of this valuable, versatile crop … until now. HB 1325 was approved unanimously by the House and the Senate, and legalizes hemp growing subject to various licensing and regulatory requirements. Both the Texas Department of Agriculture and Department of State Health Services will have to conduct rulemakings to implement the provisions of the bill.  HB 1325 was authored by Representative Tracy King (D-Uvalde) and Senator Charles Perry (R-Lubbock).

Preventing local governments from regulating children’s lemonade stands: The most publicized “food freedom” bill this session dealt with children’s lemonade stands. HB 234 by Representative Matt Krause (R-Ft. Worth) and Senator Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) prevents local governments or HOAs from banning children’s lemonade stands or requiring them to have health permits. Ironically, the bill did nothing to change the state regulation that still, on its face, would require such permits – although the state health department has said that it would not enforce that regulation.

Incentivizing the purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables in the SNAP program, including at farmers’ markets: SB 1834 by Senator Carol Alvarado (D-Houston) and Representative Toni Rose (D-Dallas) directed the Health & Human Services Commission to study local SNAP (food stamp) incentive programs across the state, such as the Sustainable Food Center’s Double Dollars project that gives SNAP recipients an extra dollar for every dollar of SNAP benefits spent on locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables. HHSC is then to create a state pilot program. Farmers, grocery store owners, farmers’ market vendors, and small retail stores benefit from higher sales of locally grown produce. Senators Bettencourt, Campbell, Hughes, and Schwertner voted “no,” and the vote in the House was heavily divided – you can find the record vote at https://journals.house.texas.gov/hjrnl/86r/pdf/86RDAY70FINAL.PDF#page=42


BAD BILLS THAT DIED THIS SESSION (i.e. MORE GOOD NEWS)

In legislative fights, success is often measured by the bills that you kill – because there’s a lot of bad legislation that is introduced! 

Beekeeping: SB 677 by Senator Bob Hall (R-Edgewood) and HB 2670 by Representative Ryan Guillen (D-Rio Grande City) would have abolished the intrastate permit for beekeepers, a move that FARFA supports. But the bill would also have converted the current free apiary registration to a fee-based beekeeper registration, with the Texas Apiary Inspection Service able to set the fee amounts. In addition, the bill converted the existing import permit to an “interstate movement” permit, allowing beekeepers to enter Texas with bees that have been taken all over the country without a current inspection. SB 677 passed the Senate, but neither it nor HB 2670 were approved by the House Agriculture Committee.

“Ag-gag”:  As originally filed, SB 1884 by Senator Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) was a very bad ag-gag bill proposed by the massive poultry industry. It created severe criminal penalties for a wide range of activities that did not merit its proposed long jail times and high fines (even something as trivial as graffiti on a farm’s truck). The bill also made it a state jail felony to tamper with or even exert “unauthorized control” over agricultural facilities’ paperwork. And it required the defendant to pay twice what the animal is worth, or what the owner alleges to be the losses due to the paperwork (what would that be?), on top of the criminal fines and jail time. As filed, the bill could have been used to severely punish legitimate whistleblowers who compile evidence of factory farms violating laws on animal welfare, pollution control, and more. After FARFA testified against the bill in the Senate Agriculture Committee, Senator Kolkhorst worked with us to make very significant changes, taking out the vast majority of the bad provisions. The amended version, as passed by the Senate, was much better, although it still contained one provision that could have been used against whistleblowers. SB 1884 died on the last day of the session without being voted on by the House.

Groundwater:  With our allies, we kept all but one of the bad groundwater bills from passing this session!

  • HB 726 by Representative Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio) included some good provisions, but overall weakened the power of local groundwater conservation districts (GCDs) to regulate exports of groundwater, as well as to institute moratoriums if needed to protect their aquifers. The bill passed the House with a few “no” votes (thank you to Representatives Biedermann, Cain, Canales, Cyrier, Leman, Stickland, and Wilson for voting “no!”), and then died in the Senate Water Committee.
  • SB 1010 by Senator Charles Perry (R-Lubbock) would have required GCDs to have “similar rules” – a confusing standard that would likely drive GCDs to develop weak rules to avoid the threat of being sued. For the cases that went to court, we would expect to see inconsistent and bizarre decisions, since “similar rules” provides no real legal guidance to the courts as to what to do. The bill unanimously passed the Senate, and then died in the House Natural Resources Committee.
  • HB 1806 by Representative Tracy King (D-Uvalde) and Senator Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) would have allowed the San Antonio Water System to sell water from the Edwards Aquifer to a developer outside the SAWS service area – at the same time that SAWS is pulling water from aquifers under rural counties such as Bastrop, Lee, and Burleson, supposedly because it needs that water for growth within SAWS’ service area! This shell game slipped through the House with little note (only Reps Nevarez and Hinojosa voted “no”), but there was greater debate in the Senate (generated principally by Senator Kolkhorst, with Senators Perry and Watson also voting “no”), and it was ultimately vetoed by the Governor. The League of Independent Voters spearheaded the calls for a veto and deserves a great deal of credit for their work on this! Read more about this victory at https://independentleaguetx.org/governer-turns-the-hose-vista-ridge-on-saws/ 

BAD BILLS THAT PASSED

Groundwater: One bad groundwater bill did get through – HB 1066 by Representative Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin) and Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio), sponsored by Senator Charles Perry (R-Lubbock) in the Senate.  The bill appeared reasonable on its face, providing that GCDs would renew export permits to match the term for the permittee’s operating permit. And in many cases, that is unobjectionable. But the bill was being pushed by San Antonio Water System and its Vista Ridge pipeline project specifically to avoid a public hearing on Vista Ridge’s request to extend its export permit. Vista Ridge wanted – and now will get – an extension to its export permit for tens of thousands of acre-feet of water from under Burleson and Milam Counties before it even starts pumping and the impacts of its pumping on the aquifer becomes clear. The Governor signed the bill, and it will go into effect on September 1.

Over-criminalization of protests: HB 3557 by Representative Chris Paddie (R-Marshall) and Senator Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) built on last session’s ridiculous expansion of the term “critical infrastructure.” Last session, the factory farm and oil and gas industries managed to get every single feedlot, oil well, and oil pipeline designated as “critical infrastructure” and thus protect them from public scrutiny by drones (even for academic research). Now, HB 3557 will make it a felony to interfere with or impede critical infrastructure in any way, including during its construction. A landowner who stands in front of the bulldozer installing a pipeline on their property because the company has violated the easement can now go to jail. And if there’s an organization involved — including a nonprofit group – the organization could face a $500,000 fine. FARFA worked with a grassroots coalition that succeeded in reducing the scope of the activities and the degree of penalties somewhat (it started with 2nd degree felony and $1 million fines!). But the final version as signed by the Governor remains an example of significant over-criminalization aimed at stifling protests of industry facilities that are harming people and communities.


FARFA PRIORITY BILLS THAT DIED

These bills didn’t make it through this session. But we’ll keep fighting for them! We may have openings to address some of them through regulatory actions over the interim, and we’re already laying the groundwork to work on some of them in the 2021 Legislative Session.

Allowing farmers with a Grade A permit for raw milk to sell at farmers’ markets and to deliver to consumers:  HB 503/ SB 80 died with even getting committee hearings in the House or Senate. While the committee chairs — Representative Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) and Senator Lois Kolkhorst (D-Brenham) — were generally very supportive of local food bills this session, they wouldn’t hold hearings on raw milk this session. We have reason to believe that Rep. Four Price (R-Amarillo) played a key role in killing the bill. But we still owe thank you’s to the bill sponsors, Representative Dan Flynn (R-Van) and Senator Bob Hall (R-Edgewood), and we will keep working on this important issue.

Making it easier for small farmers to get agricultural valuation and lower their property taxes: HB 97 directed the Comptroller to create guidelines for small farmers and those with diversified operations to qualify for ag valuation. The bill passed the House with a strong bipartisan vote but died without getting a hearing in the Senate Committee on Property Taxes, chaired by Senator Bettencourt (R-Houston). Thanks go to Representative Eddie Rodriguez (D-Houston) and his co-authors Reps. Murphy, Guillen, and Zwiener, and the Senate sponsor, Senator Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo).

Allowing farmers to sell ungraded eggs to restaurants and retailers, increasing consumer access to locally raised eggs:  SB 1805 was unanimously approved by the Senate, but the chair of the House Agriculture Committee, Representative Drew Springer (R-Muenster), did not allow it to come to a vote.  The bill sponsors, Senator Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) and Representative Stan Lambert (R-Lambert) put a great deal of effort into the bill, but could not move Chairman Springer.

Establishing an ombudsman position to help farmers and small rural businesses navigate the maze of regulatory agencies: HB 3115/ SB 776 would have established an ombudsman in the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and Tourism. The bill had committee hearings in both chambers, but neither committee (chaired by Senator Hall and Representative Springer) moved the bill forward. Senator Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) has championed this bill for multiple sessions and was joined this year by Representative Erin Zwiener (D-Driftwood).

Selling cut flowers: HB 3280 by Representative Art Fierro (D-El Paso) would have created a micro-producer exemption to the requirements for nursery licenses, for people selling less than $25,000 annually in cut flowers and plants. Chairman Springer did not give the bill a hearing in the House Agriculture Committee, so it died without making any progress.


MORE GOOD BILLS THAT DIED

Eminent Domain: SB 421 by Senator Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) would have made important reforms to the power given to private entities to take people’s property using eminent domain. The House companion bill, HB 991, was sponsored by Representative Dewayne Burns (R-Cleburne). The bills simply sought basic transparency and fairness provisions — a public meeting, notification of certain easement terms, and penalties for lowball offers — when private entities like pipeline companies are given the government power of eminent domain to force people to sacrifice their land for projects for the profit of those companies. Senator Kolkhorst agreed to some compromises, but the bill ultimately died in conference committee because Representatives who supported the oil and gas industry more than private landowners demanded unacceptable concessions that would have left the bill effectively useless. Chairman Craddick (R-Midland) was one of the key opponents who insisted on adding crippling amendments before moving the bill out of his committee.

Backyard chickens: SB 86, by Senator Bob Hall (R-Edgewood) and Representative James White (R-Hillister), would have barred local governments and homeowners’ associations from preventing people from owning up to 6 backyard hens. It unanimously passed the Senate and the House Agriculture Committee, but then died in the Calendars Committee without making it to the House floor. The Calendars Committee makes all decisions behind closed doors, so we cannot identify who was responsible for killing the bill.

Intra-state transport permits for bees: HB 1723 by Representative Terry Meza (R-Irving) would have abolished the current requirement that beekeepers get a permit simply to move their bees across county lines within the state. The bill was heard by the House Agriculture Committee but never voted on. The only opposition to this common-sense bill came from the Texas Beekeepers Association, which claimed that it would somehow cause a problem with the Texas Apiary Inspection Service keeping a list of beehive removers – even though the intrastate permit is NOT a permit to remove beehives, and no permit is required to remove beehives. TBA insisted on linking the repeal of the intrastate permit to creating a fee-based beekeeper registration program. Thanks to TBA’s opposition, beekeepers in Texas will continue to be required to get a permit to take their bees across county lines for another two years.

Country of Origin Labeling: Also known as COOL, HB 2761 would have required that any beef or pork product sold in Texas would need a label on its package or on the container in which it is displayed, designating its country of origin. The bill was heard by the House Business & Industries Committee, but opposition from the feedlot industry prevented it from moving forward – and consumers continue to remain in the dark about where their meat comes from. Yet another reason to buy from local farmers!

Pollinator health: HB 136 by Representative Gonzalez (D-El Paso) and SB 2170 by Senator Rodriguez (D-El Paso) would have established a task force to promote pollinator health. They both had hearings in the Ag Committees, but were not voted out due to opposition from Agribusiness industry groups. As the Senate hearing revealed, the fundamental opposition came from the fear that the task force might suggest some sort of limitations on the use of herbicides and pesticides – and the industry is unwilling to accept any limitations even if needed for the long-term viability of pollinators who are so vital to us all.

Implementation of the federal Food Safety Modernization Act: SB 1409 would have limited the Texas Department of Agriculture to implementing the federal Produce Safety Rule under FSMA without any additional requirements or differing standards. TDA withdrew its overreaching proposed rule the week after Senator Hall (R-Edgewood) filed the bill. Senator Charles Perry (R-Lubbock) voted against the bill in the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Senator Hall never brought it to the floor of the full Senate. Now that the session is over, TDA has re-proposed its rule with only minor changes – it still imposes additional and confusing standards beyond the federal requirements. Stay tuned for the fight on that front!


MISCELLANEOUS

Fake Meat: HB 3799 by Representative Brad Buckley (R-Killeen) would have prevented the use of the word “meat,” as well as “beef,” “poultry,” “lamb,” or “pork,” on products that were not harvested from live animals. Products made from plants or grown in a lab could still be sold – but just not with those words on the label. The bill died in the Public Health Committee. It was briefly resurrected as an amendment to HB 410 (our rabbit & poultry processing bill), but then stripped back out as non-germane.

Property Taxes & Open-Space Valuation: HB 1743 by Representative Tracy King (D-Uvalde) addressed the issue of “rollback” taxes that are imposed when land is taken out of agricultural use. Currently, the owner has to pay 5 years of back taxes, at 7% interest. FARFA supports the concept of the rollback tax for two reasons: it encourages land to stay in agricultural use, and it is a reasonable way to balance the tax advantages that people get through open-space valuation. However, the length of time and amount of interest made the current approach overly punitive. Passage of Representative King’s bill, which was sponsored by Senator Creighton (R-Conroe), changed the rollback tax to covering the last 3 years at 5% interest, a more reasonable approach.


Let’s talk about it!

Join us for one of our upcoming webinars where we’ll provide the full story on the Session, including a “scorecard” on legislators’ votes. We’ll identify the next steps for each bill (the regulatory rule-making process for the five successful bills and alternative methods to address the issues for the failed bills); share feedback on how your interactions with your legislators went; and discuss strategies for going forward.

We’ll focus on how you can continue to build strong relationships with your elected officials —  thanking them for positive actions and holding them accountable for negative ones.

 

We’ve planned six regional webinars so that discussion can focus on participants’ legislators. And if you don’t have a computer, don’t worry … you can also participate by phone! Mark your calendar and watch for an email in coming days with registration details for your region:

 

Monday, July 8 —  Southeast Texas & Upper Gulf Coast
Tuesday, July 16 —  South Texas & Lower Gulf Coast
Thursday, July 18 —  Central Texas
Monday, July 29 —  North Texas
Wednesday, July 31 —  East Texas
Monday, August 5 —  West Texas, High Plains & Panhandle