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Sid Miller Backed, Then Nixed, Ag Agency Remodel

Hand-scraped wood floors. Custom ceiling tile. A shower. Those items may not sound like upgrades a cash-strapped agency would need, and new Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller ultimately didn't think so, either. After initially supporting a big renovation at the agency, Miller decided to nix it, officials say.

Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller at Texas Republican Convention in Fort Worth, June 5th, 2014.

*Editor's note: This story has been updated to include additional comment from the agriculture department.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who has complained about the devastation that years of budget cuts have inflicted on his agency, initially backed an extensive renovation of the department offices — complete with hardwood floors, custom ceiling tiles and a shower.

A list of proposed improvements, requested between mid-November and January, were put on hold on Jan. 26, according to documents from the Texas Facilities Commission. A breakdown of the costs was not immediately available from the commission or the agriculture department.

According to agency spokesman Bryan Black, Miller halted the renovations after realizing the extent of the department’s financial woes.

“After learning of the serious budget challenges facing the Texas Department of Agriculture, Commissioner Miller put a stop to renovations at the agency,” Black said in an emailed statement. “Commissioner Miller is committed to being fiscally responsible with taxpayer dollars.”

The improvements were requested shortly after Miller’s election in November and had his support, current and former agency officials say. Former Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples had already vacated the position to take a job as head of the Texas Oil & Gas Association.

Among the requested items for Miller's own office were 6-inch “hand scraped flooring,” crown molding, indirect lighting, wooden blinds and custom ceiling tile. Items that don't mention specific locations at the department's Austin headquarters include a request for "office redesign/remodel, install shower" and another order to remove carpet and replace it with tiles that resembled the “thin set terrazzo w/state or agency seal” in the elevator lobby of the eighth floor of the Stephen F. Austin building. 

Exactly how Miller decided to cancel the renovations is a matter of considerable dispute. Black said that Assistant Commissioner Terry Keel was instructed by Miller to nix the upgrades. An email provided by the departments shows that Michael Clark, the chief of operational support, instructed the Texas Facilities Commission to halt the work on Jan. 26. 

Clark reports to Keel and did at the time, Black said.

The statement comes in sharp contrast to one issued earlier Wednesday by Kellie Housewright-Smith, Miller's former assistant commissioner for operations and the wife of Miller political consultant Todd Smith. In an emailed statement, she said she was in charge of initiating the requests but counseled against moving forward after seeing the cost, given the department's budget concerns. 

"I instructed my staff to notify the Facilities Commission that the improvement requests that had been previously made be put on hold. Other members of the executive team were not supportive of my decision, however," she said in a written statement. "When Commissioner Miller returned to Texas from an out-of-state trip, I met privately with him and told him what I had done. He told me that under the current circumstances, we had no other choice and that he agreed with and supported my decision."

Black called Housewright-Smith's statement "a lie."

"She had absolutely nothing to do with stopping this,” Black said. "Her narrative is not accurate. Her statement is false.” 

The department provided documentation showing that Housewright-Smith was terminated from her employment in mid-March. Black said her statement amounted to "stories made up by a disgruntled former employee."

News of the canceled expenditures come as Miller raises concerns about the state of the agency's finances.

After taking office, Miller began lobbying the Legislature hard for an increase of almost $50 million to his agency’s budget. He says that after lawmakers made deep budget cuts to the department in 2003 and 2011, the agency has encountered difficulty performing core consumer protection functions — such as ensuring the proper function of grocery store scanners and gasoline pumps.

Miller and his government relations team say they don’t consider the request to be new funding, rather a restoration of the budget cuts made in previous legislative sessions. But so far they've gotten a cool reception in the Texas Legislature, where Miller once served as a state representative. 

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