2017 Texas Session: Our Takeaway

Each session, we work to build support to move our issues further forward, and this session was no different. We fight hard and hope that our bills pass, but success is measured in smaller pieces than simply pass/not pass. At the same time that we work on the specific bills, we are also building recognition of the local food and sustainable agriculture movement, strengthening our position as a recognized stakeholder.

Policy changes take time. Rarely does a bill pass the first time it is introduced, and the more controversial or unfamiliar a topic, the longer it takes. This session, a bill to ban texting while driving is finally expected to be signed by the Governor, after ten years of dedicated work. Compared to texting, the questions around local foods and sustainable agriculture are very foreign to most legislators!

Unfortunately, this legislative session was a complete mess, fay beyond the world of ag and food. In eleven years of advocacy, I have never seen such rancor and misplaced priorities.  Every legislative staffer and lobbyist I have spoken to has described it as the worst session they have ever seen.

The intensely divisive social issues that dominated the discussions meant that legislators were far less likely to cross party lines, even though our issues typically bring people together. And legislators were exhausted from constant conflict, so getting them to take a stand on something like agriculture – rarely the top of anyone’s list – was almost impossible.


 

So with all of that, what were the final tangible results?

WATER:  We made a significant difference on water issues this session. None of the really bad groundwater bills passed! This was a complicated, difficult issue to work on, with lots of “inside baseball” happening, with different provisions from the dozens of bills that were filed being attached to other bills in draft conference committee versions, and much more. Much of our work was behind the scenes and in committee testimonies, as well as creating new alliances, and it paid off.

A couple of small good bills passed. HB 1648 by Representative Price requires any retail public water utility to have a water conservation coordinator to ensure that their water conservation plan is actually implemented. HB 347, by Senator Watson, clarifies that regional water planning groups and their committees are subject to the provisions of the open meetings and open information laws.

One bad bill did pass, but it was the least damaging of all those in the “bad” category. HB 2378 provides that permits to transport groundwater out of the district will be automatically renewed, just as operating permits already are. We were able to keep an important provision in the bill that allows the groundwater conservation district to periodically review the permit and limit the amount of water if warranted, thus reducing any damage done by the automatic renewal.

 

RAW MILK: The Senate version of the raw milk bill, SB 95, passed with a strong, bipartisan vote, 27-4.  Not only that, but all three MDs in the Senate voted yes! There was no floor debate or controversy, which means that they are finally seeing that raw milk is not a major controversy. This is part of the critical work for long-term change – educating legislators and their staff about the issue and countering the misinformation from the other side, as many times as needed.  And since the Senate killed the bill last session, this was an important step forward.
LOCAL CONTROL OF AG: The Monsanto Bill, SB 1172, passed the Legislature without the Rodriguez Amendment that we had fought so hard for.

The bill, as filed and as passed, pre-empts local control over seeds and the “cultivation of plants grown from seed.” We had succeeded in getting the “cultivation of plants” phrase taken out on the House floor, through an amendment carried by Representative Eddie Rodriguez, but that wasn’t the end of the fight.

The bill authors, Senator Perry and Representative Geren, snuck in an incredibly far-reaching “super pre-emption” provision, which effectively pre-empted local control on ANY business regulated by the state. That terrible provision was taken out, only to be re-inserted by the conference committee on Friday. Unfortunately, while we joined with other groups to fight against the super pre-emption clause, we soon found ourselves standing alone yet again – as soon as the super pre-emption clause was removed a second time, the Texas Municipal League (TML) told legislators that the bill was fine, ignoring the concerns of small farmers. Between the power of Monsanto and its agribusiness allies, and the complete lack of concern for agriculture shown by TML, the original version of the bill flew through on the final day of the session. (We will do a more detailed write-up on this saga, and its implications for local foods, shortly.)

 

FEEDLOTS:  HB 1643, which makes it a jailable offense to simply fly a drone over a feedlot even if you don’t take pictures, was also passed on the last day. We succeeded in convincing several Senators to vote against it, but it was not enough to stop the bill, which was supported not only by Agribusiness but also by the oil and gas and telecommunications industries (which also gained unwarranted protections against drones in the bill). This new ag-gag bill will presumably have the same effect as other versions of ag-gag bills around the country – reducing the public’s confidence in farmers as they wonder, “what are they trying to hide?” The agribusiness groups are willing to sacrifice all farmers in order to protect a few bad actors.

 

Note that both of these bills came very close to dying despite the huge money interests behind them. We went up against lobby groups that have almost unlimited financial resources, and we almost beat them with our combination of grassroots activism, top-notch materials, and lobbying.  These losses are painful, but the fact that we came as close as we did is an indication of our growing power.

 

YOUNG FARMERS & VETERANS: SB 330, which would have reduced the waiting period for young people and military veterans going into farming to qualify for agricultural valuation and reduced property taxes, passed the Senate but ultimately died in the House Agriculture Committee. The core objection to the bill was that it created “carve outs” for specific groups, and the Committee Chairman, Tracy King, was concerned about setting a precedent for additional future carve-outs. We have already spoken with both his office and Senator Rodriguez, the bill sponsor, about working together during the interim to craft new legislation to address the problem of the 5-year waiting period next session.

 

HOMEMADE FOODS, SMALL FARM TAXES, AND MORE: Everything else died, mostly without getting a committee hearing. That’s not uncommon in any Texas legislative session, and it was a particular theme in this dysfunctional session. You can check out the video of House members from both parties yelling across the building because the Senate hadn’t even assigned dozens of their bills to committee, much less given them a hearing. The “fun” starts at about the 3.5-minute mark: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nO7aJTmN_I8


And that’s the short summary of the concrete outcomes of the bills.  We’ll write more about the ins-and-outs of some of the key fights soon, including whom to thank and whom to blame.

The next 18 months will be an important time to build our strength. We’re making plans for meetings all across Texas, from Amarillo to the Valley, to talk with farmers about their biggest concerns and to teach effective activism to both farmers and consumers. We encourage each of you to meet with your legislators during the interim to talk about these issues – and to remember how they acted when November 2018 comes around.

We’ve come a long way in our eleven years of advocacy. We stopped the implementation of mandatory electronic ID (NAIS) in Texas (and nationwide!), we helped make it legal to sell homemade foods at farmers’ markets, we passed reforms to the regulations governing cooking demonstrations, and we’ve passed our bill to expand raw milk sales both in the House and Senate – just not during the same Session! We can and will do more, with your help. Thank you for everything you have done to help build recognition of the local food and sustainable agriculture movements!