Priority bill update from the Texas Legislature, April 12, 2021

Updated April 19, 2021

 

The healthy soils bill is well on the road to passing! The House Agriculture Committee held a hearing on HB 2619 by Rep. Wilson on April 29. There was no opposition at the hearing. Before the hearing, Dow Chemical raised concerns – apparently, the mere mention of “carbon sequestration” is enough to make them nervous.

But they appear to have been satisfied by the point that the bill sets up an entirely voluntary program, to provide support to those farmers and ranchers who want to build healthy soils. The Senate bill, SB 1118 by Sen. Johnson, passed on April 19.

We are also making good progress on the Home Food Security/Personal Gardens Protection bill. HB 1686 by Representative Cortez was heard by the House Agriculture Committee two weeks ago. There was significant opposition from cities and, even more, builders and HOAs, so we spent a lot of time in negotiations to develop a “committee substitute,” namely an amended version to present to the committee this week for approval. The committee sub makes clarifying changes that are meant to address the objections, without hurting the core goal of the bill: to allow people to raise food for themselves. 

In more good news, the bill to clarify provisions for Farmers’ Markets, SB 617 by Senator Kolkhorst, will be heard by the Senate Health & Human Services Committee Tuesday, April 13.

But as detailed in this week’s action alerts, two more of our priority bills are in trouble and need calls. If you care about supporting small produce farmers or those raising eggs, please take a few minutes to help!


More Updates

 

Starting with three bad bills:

 

1. HB 1480, the ag-gag bill, was unanimously approved by the House Agriculture committee and is awaiting a vote by the full House. However, several committee members publicly expressed that they want to see amendments to the bill to address the ag-gag provision, and FARFA is continuing to talk with the bill sponsors in both the House and the Senate.

The majority of the bill deals with penalties for things such as physical damage and vandalism to agricultural operations and would be fine if just one section were taken out: 252.001(a)(4) – which using obfuscating language to hide its effect of creating an Ag-gag law.  You can watch FARFA’s testimony on the bill at https://tlchouse.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=46&clip_id=19723. (Watch the full hearing, or skip to FARFA Executive Director Judith McGeary’s testimony at the 18 minutes 30 seconds mark.)

2. HB 2144, to effectively abolish public nuisance doctrine, was heard by the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. As FARFA’s ED explained, preventing local governments and individuals from being able to use the traditional common law claim of public nuisance will almost certainly end up leading to more regulation.

Nuisance claims are an important tool for dealing with the occasional “bad actor” who is doing something that is legal under the law, but which causes significant problems for those around them. Without that tool, local governments will be incentivized to regulate for every possible scenario – burdening individuals and small businesses who would never cause a problem if allowed to act freely. Despite testimony in opposition, the committee approved the bill later in the week. You can watch the hearing at https://tlchouse.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=46&clip_id=20106. (FARFA testimony at the 45-minute mark.)

3. We mentioned HB  3924 / SB 1973 in our last weekly update, but were a little vague, because, frankly, the bills were really confusing to understand. Their purpose became clear during the committee hearings last week, and it’s not pretty. In brief, it empowers Texas Farm Bureau – and only that one organization – to sell “health plans” that do not meet the requirements for actual health insurance.

As explained by the witnesses in opposition, this approach undermines efforts to expand health insurance generally. And since these “health plans” can exclude people with pre-existing conditions – which would mean the majority of farmers, who are typically older – it doesn’t really benefit farmers.

The main benefit is to Texas Farm Bureau, which will be able to attract young, urban members to swell its membership numbers and bring in revenues. Although the bill appeared to be on the fast track, it was left pending in committee. With the opposition from the AARP and many healthcare organizations, it may yet die. You can watch the Senate committee hearing here: https://tlcsenate.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=49&clip_id=15619. (The bill is laid out at the 4-minute mark, and there’s a lot of interesting testimony.)


And now several good bills that are moving forward that FARFA registered in favor of:

On the water front, FARFA registered in support of HB 2652, creating an advisory board to study surface water and groundwater interaction. FARFA testified in support of HB 3619, which would require groundwater conservation districts (GCDs) to consider the impacts on exempt wells – small wells that provide for people’s household and livestock needs – when they are considering granting a new groundwater pumping permit. Both bills were left pending, and then approved by the committee later in the week. You can watch the hearing at https://tlchouse.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=46&clip_id=20105. (HB 2652 is heard at 52 minutes. HB 3619 starts at 1 hr., 30 minutes; and FARFA’s testimony is at 1 hr., 43 minutes.)

FARFA also registered in support of HB 2225, which directs Texas Parks & Wildlife Department to encourage and facilitate the dedication of water rights to the Texas Water Trust through voluntary means. The Trust holds the water rights to protect stream flows, water quality, fish & wildlife habitat, and bay and estuary health. The bill was approved by committee and is scheduled for a vote on the floor of the House on Tuesday, April 13.

On the eminent domain front, although the larger reform bills appear to be stalled in committee, HB 2043 / SB 725 have both been approved by committee. This bill makes a simple, common-sense change, so that if a farmers’ land is taken by eminent domain, the farmer doesn’t have to pay the extra taxes that become due because it is no longer classified as agricultural.

SB 1145, which would prevent plant-based and lab-made foods from being labeled as “meat,” was approved by the Senate Committee and is awaiting a vote on the Senate floor. The Senate witnesses included FARFA and an active Q&A between committee members and the opponents of the bill. Watch at https://tlcsenate.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=49&clip_id=15585, starting at 15 minutes, 30 seconds. (Note that the Senate is having people sit in the gallery on the 3rd floor, so you have to dash down to the hearing room on the 2nd floor when your name is called!)

HB 3853 would use the existing electric utility infrastructure to expand access to broadband in rural communities across the state. An amended version, which addresses notice and eminent domain issues, was approved by the State Affairs committee this week.

HB 1276 by Representative Tan Parker would allow restaurants to sell grocery items (making a pandemic-related waiver into permanent law). It was approved by the House Public Health committee.

HB 1259, to improve the rural veterinarian’s incentive program, was unanimously approved by the House Higher Education committee.


New bills up for hearing this week

 

Eminent domain reform: Three good bills are getting a Senate Committee hearing Monday:
SB 721 to require the condemning entity to disclose any and all existing appraisal reports related to the person’s property. SB 723 provides property owners additional information about their rights in the negotiation of a survey and other related provisions with a condemnor. SB 726 improves on the current provisions that allow a landowner the right to repurchase property if the condemning entity does not prove that “actual progress” toward the stated public use of a taking is not made within a 10-year period, by increasing the requirements for “actual progress.” All three were filed by Senator Schwertner. The Senate committees are not doing online written comments.

 

Water: On Tuesday, the House Natural Resources Committee will hear HB 2095 by Representative Wilson, which directs the Bureau of Economic Geology to create a system of comprehensive surface water and groundwater models, including models of the integration of surface water and groundwater. The hearing notice is posted at https://capitol.texas.gov/tlodocs/87R/schedules/html/C3902021041308001.HTM, and you can submit written comments online.