Published April 26, 2021
This session has shaped up to be even more difficult than predicted. On top of COVID, redistricting, and the freeze, the legislators are warring over hot button topics such as election rights and social issues. Add Big Ag’s determination to block anything that opens up new marketing opportunities for small farmers, and you get a recipe for an ugly mess.
Even so, two of our bills are doing very well, a third has a solid fighting chance, and two more are not quite dead yet.
So, this week’s update includes action items on one bill, and we’ll be sending out another alert later this week. Please take a few minutes to take action! Your calls truly can make the difference between the bills passing or failing.
First to share the good news: HB 1652, our farmers’ market bill to ensure that the permit fee caps and sampling rules are applied fairly across the state, is scheduled for a hearing before the House Public Health Committee on Wednesday. With the Senate version (SB 617) already through committee, this bill is looking good.
Our healthy soils bill is in great shape. SB 1118 has unanimously passed the Senate, and HB 2619 is in the Calendars Committee after being unanimously approved by the House Agriculture Committee. The next step is for the Senate bill to “catch up” in Calendars, to be scheduled for a vote by the full House.
Our remaining bills need your calls, though. With just 35 days left in the Texas legislative session, time is getting short to pass important reforms for regenerative agriculture and local food producers!
And if you want updates on other legislation – on groundwater, eminent domain, rural broadband, “fake meat” labeling, and more – that’s included after the action items.
Action Alert: Home Food Security
The Home Food Security Bill, HB 1686 / SB 1062, would protect people’s right to raise food for themselves on their own property, by preventing cities and homeowners’ associations (HOAs) from banning front yard gardens or a few backyard chickens or rabbits. The bill also prevents HOAs from banning cottage food operations. It allows cities and HOAs to adopt reasonable restrictions, such as banning roosters or to prevent odor or pest problems, as long as the restrictions don’t reach the level of effectively banning the gardens, chickens, rabbits, or cottage foods.
HB 1686 was approved by the House Agriculture Committee by a vote of 8-1, which is a great start. But now it’s in the Calendars Committee, and we’re concerned that the HOAs are working to keep it from being scheduled for a vote by the full House. Meanwhile, the Senate companion bill has yet to get a hearing in the Local Government Committee where it was sent.
Action #1: Call your Representative to urge them to sign on to HB 1686.
Bonus Action: Check this page to see if your Representative is on the Calendars Committee. If he or she is on that Committee, please also encourage your friends and family who are in the district to call – we really need Calendars members to hear from their constituents.
Action #2: Call your Senator to urge them to sign on to SB 1062.
Bonus Action: Senator Bettencourt, the chair of the Senate Local Government Committee, represents Tomball and other suburban cities in Harris County, including a small portion of Houston. If he is your Senator, please also encourage your friends and family who are in the district to call!
Whether you are in one of the “bonus” areas or not, please make both calls! Even if you have called before, call again. As long as you are polite, brief, and friendly, it helps them to understand how important this is to you!
“Hi, my name is ___, and I live in [town]. I am calling to ask Representative ___ to co-author HB 1686 (or to ask Senator ___ to co-author SB 1062), the Home Food Security Act and to help it move forward as soon as possible.
[Add a couple of sentences about why this matters to you – whether your city or HOA bans front yard gardens or chickens, or because of the need for people in the community to have access to affordable, healthy food, or you are a cottage food producer afraid of being shut down by the HOA.]
This bill is important both to help individuals and our entire community. At a time of significant food insecurity, we need to support people’s ability to provide for themselves.
Will Representative ____ co-author HB 1686? (Or will Senator ____ co-author SB 1062?)”
Look up and find contact info for who represents you.
You can download our Fact Sheet to learn more about the bill. The fact sheet also makes a great way to follow up! Ask for the staffer’s email address and email them a quick note and the Fact Sheet after your call.
Other Legislative Updates
A lot is happening on the eminent domain front. Multiple good bills have passed the full Senate: SB 721, SB 723, SB 725, and SB 726. Several of their House companion bills have made it through committee and been sent to Calendars. Each bill makes positive reforms to the current deeply flawed eminent domain law in our state. Many thanks to Rita Bevings and the Texas Landowners for Eminent Domain Reform for their commitment and hard work on this important issue! There is too much for us to include in our action alert, so we encourage you to sign up for email alerts from them to stay abreast.
This week, the House Agriculture Committee will hear the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC) Sunset bill. Sunset is a process that every state agency undergoes every 12 years. Although the primary question is whether the agency will be continued or “sunset-ed,” it also is a time to make changes in how the agency functions. FARFA submitted comments to the Sunset staff last year about the problems with TAHC, including the issue that the agency uses informal “working groups” to develop its policies and rules. Those working groups have never included small or regenerative producers, and they work largely in secret behind closed doors. We are glad to see the staff listened, and the Sunset bill, SB 705, abolishes working groups, directing the agency to establish transparent, formal procedures for advisory groups.
The Sunset staff did not address one of our other main concerns, however, namely that the Commissioners who are supposed to represent the “general public” are often actually Big Ag representatives. FARFA is working to amend the Sunset bill to provide appropriate conflict of interest protections so these Commissioners genuinely represent the general public.
Also this week, we’ll be testifying in support of a great groundwater bill, HB 2851. Groundwater conservation districts (GCDs) must consider multiple factors when they set their “desired future conditions” – how much the aquifer should be drawn down over the next 50 years. One factor is how much water can feasibly be withdrawn from the aquifer. But GCDs do NOT consider how much water can sustainably be withdrawn over the long-term. HB 2851 would add the factor of sustainable withdrawal levels to the list of things to be considered in setting the DFCs. It’s not perfect, because it’s definition of sustainability doesn’t explicitly include the impacts on domestic wells or surface waters, but it’s a major step forward.
Several other bills that we’ve supported are making good progress:
- More groundwater: HB 3619 would direct GCDs to consider the impacts on “exempt” wells – wells that provide for people’s household or livestock use – when considering an application for a new or amended permit. HB 3619 has passed the House and is headed to the Senate.
- Rural broadband: HB 3853 is scheduled for a vote by the full House today. Electric utilities often have excess fiber capacity that could be used to increase two-way flows of data and energy without the requirement for new infrastructure. This bill would allow those utilities to partner with Internet providers who agree to lease this capacity as a way to deliver broadband service to consumers.
- “Fake meat:” SB 1145, to prevent lab-grown cell cultures or plant-based foods from being labeled as “meat,” has passed the full Senate. The language in SB 1145 is more tightly tailored than HB 316, which was just approved by the House Committee, and we are optimistic that SB 1145 will be the version that actually passes.
- Restaurants selling groceries: HB 1276 would allow restaurants to continue selling pre-packaged grocery items, an emergency measure that was allowed during COVID. The bill has passed the full House and is on its way to the Senate.
- Rural veterinarian loan forgiveness: HB 1259 has passed the House and is heading to the Senate. This bill seeks to address the critical shortage of large animal veterinarians by creating a program that provides educational loan assistance in exchange for a commitment to practice in areas of shortage.
One of the key bad pieces of legislation we’ve been fighting, HB 1480, has been stalled for several weeks. While the majority of the bill addresses vandalism and physical damage to agricultural operations, one section of it is an “ag gag” provision. It would impose criminal penalties on anyone who exercised “unauthorized control” over “materials” of an agricultural operation – which could include such things as making photocopies of documents or taking pictures of activities that violate the law. This anti-whistleblower provision needs to be removed, or the bill stopped. Although the bill was approved by the House Agriculture Committee, it has been sitting in Calendars for the last month, and the Senate companion has not had a hearing. The fight is far from over, but the bill’s lack of progress indicates we have made an impact already!
Many other bills about which we alerted you or that we’ve been watching are either dead or heading that direction. As always, if you want to track a bill yourself, you can sign up for a free MyTLO account. And watch for our email alerts!