Texas Legislative Update

 

Local foods are a hot topic in the 2015 Texas legislative session!  FARFA has seven bills that have been filed to help to grow the local food movement, making it easier for farmers to make a fair living and for consumers to access high-quality local foods!

Please contact your State Representative and State Senator and urge them to co-author the bills listed below.  You can find out who represents you at:

You can download one-page fact sheets for each bill by clicking the “more information” link at the end of each paragraph.

We are also tracking several more good bills on issues related to agriculture, water, and eminent domain, as well as several bad bills.  Please check out our additional bills list below, after the description of our top priority bills.

FARFA’s Priority Bills to Support

HB 91, by Representative Dan Flynn, would expand access to raw milk. Texans can legally buy unpasteurized milk, but consumers’ choices are limited by regulations that limit sales to taking place on-farm and require individuals to drive out to the farm, which may be up to 2 or 3 hours away.  This regulation burdens consumers and penalizes family farmers.  The bill would allow licensed farmers to sell raw milk directly to consumers at farmers markets, farm stands, and fairs, as well as make arrangements for delivery.  This bill would continue the direct farmer-to-consumer relationship while ensuring that raw milk is both safe and accessible to rural and urban customers.  More information on raw milk bill.

 

rain-lily-chicken-coopHB 809, by Representative James White, would provide a voice for small-scale producers on the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC).  This agency regulates anyone who owns any livestock or poultry — even just a few backyard chickens or a pet horse – but the current Commissioners all represent the large industry players.  This is regulation without representation and needs to be changed!   More information on TAHC reform bill.

 

HB 1846, by Representative Susan King, provides a vital opportunity for Texas farmers, consumers, and legislators to be involved before our state agencies use state resources to implement onerous new federal food safety regulations.  The bill requires the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) and the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) to publish notice of any proposed agreement to implement federal food safety regulations and allow for public comment.  The agencies will also be required to consult with the chairs of the relevant House and Senate standing committees.  Before finalizing the agreement with FDA, the agencies will have to publish a summary of the public comments and identify if any changes were made in response to the public or legislators’ comments.  More information on food safety regulations’ transparency.

 

HB 1900, by Representative Eddie Rodriguez, and SB 1581, by Senator Judith Zaffirini, would establish fair property tax for sustainable farmers, urban farms and community gardens.  Current state law provides that land shall be appraised as qualified agricultural land if it is primarily used for agricultural use.  “Agricultural use” is defined broadly, yet many local county assessors have applied it in a restrictive, narrow manner that is not consistent with the legislative language or intent.  Under these restrictive applications, urban farms, vegetable farms, sustainable livestock farms, and community gardens have often been denied agricultural valuation, even when the primary purpose of the property is raising food for the community.  This bill seeks to clarify the statute so that such farms and community gardens qualify for the agricultural valuation that they are entitled to.   More information on property tax reform.

 

HB 2600, by Representative Eddie Rodriguez, would encourage home-based food production by expanding what foods can be prepared in home kitchens and where they can be sold.  FARFA helped pass cottage food bills in 2011 & 2013, which allow people to make and sell listed nonpotentially hazardous foods at hoTexas Bakers Bill Home Bakerme and sell them directly to consumers at specific locations. The result: over 1,000 new businesses! Now it’s time for the next step. The new home processors’ bill would allow canned and fermented vegetables, potentially hazardous baked goods, and other foods to be prepared in home kitchens under a common-sense regulatory scheme, and sold both directly to consumers and wholesale within the state of Texas.  More information on home processors bill.

 

SB 786, by Senator Judith Zaffirini, would create an agricultural ombudsman at the Texas Department of Agriculture to help small-scale farmers and local food business navigate the complex maze of regulations and agencies in order to legally run their businesses.  More information on ombudsman bill.

 

HB 3499, by Representative Carol Alvarado, would require  labeling of foods containing genetically engineered ingredients.  GMOs, or “genetically modified organisms,” are produced in laboratories. Unlike traditional plant hybridization and animal breeding, which try to develop better varieties by selecting traits from the same species, genetic engineering techniques insert specific genes from any plant, animal or microorganism into the DNA of a different species to create new organizations that could not occur in nature. GMOs are widespread in our food system. The majority of corn, soybeans, canola, cotton and sugar beets grown in this country are GMO. GMO ingredients are found in over 80% of all processed foods in the U.S. and can be difficult for a consumer to identify.  There have been no independent long-term studies on the human health effects of GMOs.  Because the majority of GMO crops are designed to allow the application of toxic herbicides during the growing season, there are serious environmental and human health concerns.  And the patents on GMO seeds creates significant food sovereignty and food security issues.  Bottom line: many consumers want to avoid GMOs for a wide range of issues.   Labeling is necessary to allow the free market to function properly and allow people to make informed decisions.   More information on GMO labeling bill. 

Additional Bills to Support

Support HB 262, by Representative Borris Miles, which would expand land available for community gardens by limiting landowner liability.  One of the major barriers to community gardens is access to land.  Many landowners have vacant lots that are not currently in use that could be a significant benefit to the community.  HB 262 protects landowners from liability if they allow their land to be used for community gardens, absent willful, wanton or grossly negligent conduct by the landowner.

  Support HB 632, by Representative David Simpson, which wouldburleson-county-pipeline provide local control over water supplies.  It is far too common for urban areas to include projects that take water from a rural area to “solve” the city’s need for water.  This is particularly dangerous when the rural area is in a different planning region, so that they have no say in the planning process.  HB 632 provides that a regional water plan may not include a proposal for the construction of a water project in another region, unless at least 2/3 of the members of the planning group for the other region have consented to the inclusion of the proposal in the plan.

Support HB 1322, by Representative Joe Farias,  to legalize industrial hemp It is legal to buy hemp products in the U.S., including hemp protein supplements, hemp clothing, and hemp seeds.  It is not possible to get “high” from hemp, nor does it cross-pollinate with marijuana.  Despite these facts, it is currently illegal to grow hemp in most states, including Texas.  HB 1322 would allow Texas farmers to grow this valuable crop, under a careful licensing arrangement to ensure that the authorities can easily determine whether the crop is legal hemp or illegal marijuana.

Support HB 1203/  SB610, by Representative Murr and Senator Perry, to protect farm businesses by limiting liability for agritourism activities. Hosting recreational or educational events on farms is a wonderful way for farms to generate additional income, but concerns about liability often deter farmers.   The reality is that, on a complex outdoor setting such as a farm, there are inevitably some risks. HB 1203/ SB 610 provides that an “agritourism entity” is not liable for injuries arising out of such an activity if there is proper warning posted or a written waiver is signed, unless the entity acts negligently or the injury arises from a dangerous condition existing on the property, a dangerous animal, or improper employee training.

Support SB 474, by Senator Lois Kolkhorst, to provide true recovery in eminent domain proceedings Property owners are often forced to accept unfairly low compensation for their land in eminent domain cases because they cannot afford the legal costs to challenge the offer through litigation. Condemnors are aware that property owners can rarely afford litigation and take advantage of property owners by offering excessively low compensation for property.  SB 474 requires condemnors to reimburse property owners for attorney’s and professional fees in eminent domain proceedings where it is determined that the condemnor’s lowest offer for the property is 10 percent or more lower than the amount determined by a special commissioner or other court. The bill is not designed to halt eminent domain proceedings, but rather to encourage fairer offers in an effort to avoid litigation altogether.

Support HB 3764/ SB 1766 by Representative Will Metcalf and Senator Brandon Creighton.  This bill would allow very small-scale beekeepers to sell their honey without requiring a commercial kitchen.  Individuals who own and manage their own hives entirely by themselves or with the help of immediate family members could sell up to 2,500 lbs of their honey directly to consumers  at their home, farmers market, farm stand, or at a municipal, county, or nonprofit fair festival, or event.  In effect, this is a mini-cottage food bill just for honey.  Note that honey is also included in the Home Processors Bill, HB 2600, to allow for more options for producers who are willing to accept some level of regulation.

 

Bills to Amend or Oppose

Amend HB 132, by Representative Dan Flynn.  As introduced, HB 132 goes too far in abolishing all local control of agricultural operations.  Farmers do many things that have effects beyond their property boundaries, significantly impacting their neighbors and immediate community.  FARFA is urging an amendment that would allow regulation by local governments when reasonably necessary to protect nearby individuals from unsanitary conditions, damage to or contamination of crops, injury or health threat to animals or people, soil or water contamination, and similar issues. This would strike a balance between the need to address overregulation of farms and ranches, while still respecting the property rights of everyone involved.

Amend or Oppose HB 3298/ SB 1907, by Representative Larson and Senator Perry.  This bill directs the Texas Water Development Board to conduct a study on how to establish a statewide marketing and conveyance network for water in Texas.  Unfortunately, it assumes that such a market and network is the right approach to addressing our water needs, without first analyzing whether that is the case.  The bills also fail to place the issue of conservation first.  This paves the way for urban areas to permanently take water from rural areas based on current needs and supply.  Once that is done, the rural areas will never be able to expand or grow because they won’t have the water supply to do so.  And if the urban areas are allowed to draw down the aquifers, rather than implementing conservation measures, then the rural areas won’t have even their current levels of water to maintain themselves.  Ultimately, our rural and farming communities will stagnate and shrink.   Read FARFA’s comments on the bill.

 Oppose HB 3597 by Representative Keffer.   This bill removes a key provisions of groundwater export law that currently gives Groundwater Districts the authority to consider the impact on the area that is transferring the water.  In other words, before approving taking groundwater from County A for the benefit of County B, the groundwater district for County A is able to consider how much water is in the are and what the effect of transferring water out of it will be.  There is no good reason to strip local authorities of the ability to protect the residents of their area from having their water resources depleted.

Oppose HB 540, by Representative Phil King.  Local initiatives are an important part of our Texas democratic process.  They allow people in local communities to decide on laws that are appropriate for them.  Under well-established legal doctrines, local laws cannot contradict state law or the Constitution, and any local law that does so would be struck down by the courts.  But HB 540 seeks to replace the entire court system with a single elected official, the Texas Attorney General.  The bill would prevent a local government from even placing an initiative on the ballot if this one state official believes that it violates state law, the Texas Constitution, or constitute a taking of property.  In other words, the state AG would become the ultimate arbiter of what is legal for local governments to do, in place of our entire judicial system.

Oppose HB 2132, by Representative Tom Craddick. The exemption for water wells that are used to support oil and gas operations already creates a significant loophole in our ability to regulate precious, limited water resources in our State.  HB 2132 would expand this loophole by exempting wells that are used for other purposes, as long as they partly support oil and gas operations. HB2132 also explicitly exempts wells that support fracking, as well as a wide range of expansions for oil and gas wells.  This is not a question of supporting or opposing fracking and oil production.  Rather, the use of large quantities of fresh water for fracking is simply unnecessary and harms the interests all other users.  The bill does give groundwater districts some authority over exempt oil and gas wells, but that is undermined by the requirement that the exempt wells be allowed to produce at least as much as “the highest production amount” allowed for any well in the district.  HB 2132 continues and expands the current problem of freshwater use for oil and gas production being allowed at the expense of agricultural, residential, and all other uses.

Updated April 9, 2015