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Agriculture Commissioner Hopefuls Focus on Water Policy Early in Campaigns

The three GOP candidates for agriculture commissioner stress that rural areas must not be left behind as the state moves forward on water policy.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
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With urban residents’ share of the state population climbing to nearly 90 percent, advocating for rural Texas can be a tough job these days. But with an unrelenting drought in Texas and a vote coming in November to fund new water projects, the state’s next agriculture commissioner will have an important role on key policy issues facing the state.

And water policy is first and foremost on the minds of the three Republicans who have recently declared their candidacy for the position.

State Rep. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe; Uvalde Mayor J Allen Carnes; and lawyer and rancher Eric Opiela have all announced their intentions to join the race. (Carnes is scheduled to officially kick off his campaign Thursday.) Next March, the three will compete in the first contested Republican primary for the position in 16 years. No Democrat has declared for the contest to succeed Todd Staples, who is running for lieutenant governor.

Should voters approve $2 billion in new funding for water projects, the three candidates said, rural areas deserve a large chunk of that money.

“The water bill that was passed this last session is really a mixed bag for rural Texas,” said Opiela. The 10 percent of the $2 billion that lawmakers have planned for rural projects is not enough, he said, and he worried that the Texas Water Development Board would have no agricultural interests among its leadership. (The proportion of the board who represents traditionally rural interests went from one-third to zero in the recent restructuring process, though many stakeholders hope that current chairman Carlos Rubinstein, who is from the Rio Grande Valley, will help fill the void.)

Creighton, who voted for the legislation that is bringing the $2 billion water projects proposal before voters, said the plan is vital for the state, “but we’ve got a long way to go.” Agricultural use of water should be just as important as industrial and municipal use, and right now, they aren’t, he said.

Carnes said that there could be a lack of understanding between the rural and urban areas when it comes to such policy.

“There needs to be a clear voice in tying the two together,” he said.

The agriculture commissioner's duties include consumer protection — such as regulating fuel pumps and scales to ensure food and gas purchases are measured accurately — as well as regulating pesticides, offering loans to farmers and rural communities, and administering the national school lunch program and fighting obesity. 

Gene Hall, a spokesman for the Texas Farm Bureau, an advocacy group, said the position is more important than ever before in the wake of changing demographics and the drought’s impact on rural areas. Most of Texas’ newer population resides in cities, he said, but farmers are often the most disadvantaged and need a voice.

“Most farmers and ranchers believe that if urban Texas had done as good a job in planning for water and adopting new technologies ... as agriculture has, then we would be in a lot better shape right now,” Hall said.

He added that the commissioner must fight for private property rights, which many farmers believe are threatened by energy and other development interests, along with urban reach into their groundwater supplies.

The candidates did not offer specific policies that they would pursue. So far, they each each point to their experience in touting their abilities to meet the demands of the job.

Creighton, the Republican majority leader in the House, has been in the Legislature since 2006. His campaign biography notes his ranching roots, saying that he and his wife have raised horses, donkeys and cattle on their Madison County ranch and that his family has ranched in Texas and New Mexico for generations. He also works in marketing and sales at the Conroe-based Signorelli Company, a real estate development company. Previously, he was a real estate lawyer, and director of the Lonestar Groundwater District.

Opiela, who identifies himself as a fifth-generation Texas rancher, has emphasized his rural roots, as well as his work for Republicans. Currently associate general counsel to the Texas Republican Party, he has helped the state in its fight over redistricting, according to his campaign biography. He says he is a published legal scholar on water issues, having written against the "rule of capture" inherent in state law for groundwater. 

Carnes says he has the most “on-the-ground” experience, with his town currently in Stage 5 drought restrictions. Residents can only water their lawns once a week. At times, Uvalde’s population of 16,000 has been described as “competing” with water resources with nearby San Antonio, but Carnes quickly dismissed that view and said both communities have an understanding.

Working with San Antonio has given Carnes experience on bringing urban and rural Texas together on water issues, he said.

Carnes, who has been mayor of Uvalde since 2012, owns multiple farms in South Texas, growing everything from “vegetables to grain to cotton,” he said, and has served on multiple agriculture advisory boards on a state and federal level.

According to the most recent campaign finance data available, Creighton leads in fundraising with just more than $850,000. Opiela has raised $250,000, and Carnes has raised about $92,000, with more than a quarter of that coming from his own pockets. 

Creighton and Opiela have criticized the federal government over what they see as excessive water and environmental regulations. Creighton said that “all of these things are directly tied to job loss and adding to the headaches and stresses that our farmers and ranchers already experience. They’ve got enough of that already.”

Many perceive agriculture’s influence to be on a steady decline here. The Department of Agriculture’s budget was cut nearly 40 percent during budget restructuring in 2011, and the Department of Rural Affairs was eliminated entirely. That was followed by steep federal agricultural program cuts that hit Texans hard. Still, the state has the country’s largest rural population at close to 4 million Texans, and that population has been growing as well. Agriculture continues to be a vital industry for the state, which leads the nation in cattle ranching and the production of cotton and wool, among other products, according to the Texas Department of Agriculture. One in seven Texans holds an agriculture-related job, the agency says. 

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Energy Environment Politics 2014 elections Brandon Creighton Water supply