By Brian M. Rosenthal March 1, 2017
AUSTIN – Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller once again is clashing with the Legislature and threatening to unilaterally raise fees on farmers and ranchers.
Miller, a first-term Republican who ran as a hard-line conservative, has faced repeated questions about his spending decisions and weathered fierce criticism for raising licensing, registration and inspection fees by $11 million annually last year. Now, he is doubling down by promising to raise fees by another $5 million unless lawmakers give his agency more funding and more power to transfer money between programs.
“We’re providing a protection and service to the producers and consumers of this state,” Miller told a House Appropriations subcommittee last week. “I’m asking for the essential money to keep that service alive.”
“If you give us our budget tools back, we can actually lower some of these fees,” he added in an appeal to the Senate Finance Committee, arguing that many agencies have transfer authority and giving him that power would not cost the state anything.
The pleas did not go over well with lawmakers, who already are struggling to close a budget shortfall without raising taxes or tapping into the state’s Rainy Day Fund.
In fact, several powerful House budget writers decided Tuesday to reject Miller’s request for transfer authority, according to Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, who chairs the spending panel that oversees the Texas Department of Agriculture.
“Commissioner Miller has proven why this body can’t give him that kind of authority,” Gonzales said in an interview, referring to reports in the Houston Chronicle and elsewhere about the commissioner’s spending of agency money on personal trips and extravagant bonuses and salaries for friends.
“We’re in a tight budget cycle,” said Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, before mentioning that Miller served in the House between 2001 and 2013. “I’m always interested when legislators go on to higher elected office and they want everybody else to be cut except them.”
At odds with legislators
The burgeoning fight has echoes of 2015 and 2016, when Miller aggressively lobbied lawmakers to restore years-old budget cuts to the agency and, when that failed, raised the fees – some by 100 percent or more. Miller agreed to delay the fee increases amid criticism from industry groups, dozens of lawmakers and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, but he eventually implemented them in January 2016.
Miller passionately defended his decisions at that time. He said fees had not been raised in more than a decade, resulting in a lengthy backlog in inspections and other services that was hurting Texans.
This time around, the commissioner is requesting a total of about $6.5 million to hire additional inspectors, buy new trucks, rehab the laboratory in which weights and measures are calibrated and promote Texas agriculture abroad. He also wants to regain power to transfer money between programs, carry over surplus money from one fiscal year to the next and keep the money collected from fines.
That authority is common for “cost-recovery” agencies that collect fees and violation dollars, Miller said, emphasizing that the nature of the collection set-up meant that no taxpayer dollars would be at stake.
Miller has warned lawmakers the budget plans currently under consideration would trigger new fees and a “death spiral downward, where services provided by TDA to 27 million Texans are constantly decreasing.”
Asked by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, about why he had raised fees related to certification of seeds by 141 percent last year, Miller said that the increase did not cover costs and would have to go up again “drastically.”
Seliger and others have been unusually hostile to Miller’s requests in public and private. During the House hearing, Beaumont Republican Dade Phelan wondered aloud whether lawmakers could give the department’s duties to another agency.
The reason for the opposition, according to multiple lawmakers, is a spate of news reports about Miller’s questionable spending.
Among other issues, the Chronicle has revealed over the past 18 months that Miller has used agency money to fly to Oklahoma to receive a pain-curing injection known as “The Jesus Shot” and to travel to Mississippi to compete in a rodeo; has frequently flown first class and charged the state for cocktails; has hired nine friends and campaign aides to new high-paying jobs without giving the public a chance to apply, as required by law; and gave more bonuses in his first nine months than his predecessor awarded in his first two and a half years in office.
Use of state money
An investigation by the Texas Rangers confirmed that Miller used state money for personal gain, including “The Jesus Shot,” but prosecutors ultimately decided not to file charges.
“His fiscal management has really raised eyebrows, and he hasn’t done anything to give us comfort in his ability to handle a budget,” Gonzales said.
Miller also faces opposition from the agriculture industry. At the legislative hearing, Steven Boyd, the managing director of Sun Coast Resources, a Houston-based fuel and lubricant distributor, decried the “outrageous fees” that he said had gone up about 500 percent for meters on delivery trucks, forcing him to lay off employees.
“In Texas, we’re supposed to be pro-business,” Boyd said.
Miller spokesman Mark Loeffler suggested in an interview that agency officials are still confident that lawmakers will approve their requests.
“Our legislative relations staff has been working with them. It’s just a matter of understanding where we are in this cost recovery world,” Loeffler said. “It’s workable.”
The content of this article comes from the Texas Seed Trade Association weekly newsletter.