Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller told lawmakers a few weeks ago that he wouldn’t do what a lot of his predecessors have done: use the agency as a “political tool,” a mere stepping stone to higher office.
Given all the controversy the Republican has sparked since taking the reins in January, that seems like a safe bet.
In just over three months, the former state representative has irked lawmakers with his aggressive lobbying for agency funding, faced questions about a proposal to renovate his office and come under fire for hiring a felon who, according to a newspaper report, continued to represent private clients while on the state payroll.
The collection of unflattering headlines has lawmakers and one of Miller’s predecessors questioning whether the world-champion calf roper was fully ready to steer a billion-dollar state agency.
“In Sid’s defense, I don’t think he really understood what it means to be a statewide elected official. I think this happens to a lot of people,” said Susan Combs, a former Texas agriculture commissioner who most recently served as state comptroller. “It’s not just that you’ve got two or three House staffers. You’ve got hundreds. You manage all kinds of money.”
But Miller is brushing off the criticism, touting his first 100 days as a wild success. He said his office has accelerated international trade, beefed up the marketing of Texas agriculture and doled out grants and completed contracts "faster than they ever moved before."
“I tell you what, I’ve never had this much fun in my life," Miller said in an interview. “I think we’ve had a rocky start with the media that's been hounding us, and unfortunately not telling the good stories.”
Miller roared into office promising bold action and flashy reforms. In what he described as his first official act, the cowboy-hat-wearing commissioner granted “amnesty” to cupcakes — a symbolic gesture meant to publicize that schoolchildren can bring cupcakes and other sugary snacks into the classroom.
But the ban on such treats, instituted by Combs – a Republican who was agriculture commissioner from 1999 to 2007 – had already been lifted by her successor, ex-Commissioner Todd Staples. Miller said he was worried that many parents and kids didn’t know they could now bring the snacks to class.
Keeping to other people's political scripts is not really Miller's forte. Shortly before he was sworn in, Miller appeared at a Texas Public Policy Foundation forum.
Asked what keeps him up at night, Miller replied: “The thing that keeps me up at night, usually, is bad Mexican food,” prompting laughter. "Actually, I sleep pretty well, but I do have some long-range concerns as I hold those two grandbabies on my lap, and I happen to wonder: When they have grandbabies to hold in their lap, will we be a socialist country? Will we be a Muslim country?”
Miller stood by that comment on Friday. “You can quote me on this – I’m not for either one of those. I’m for our traditional Texas values, our family values, our Texas heritage." He said he was plenty focused on issues facing the agriculture sector, including giving farmers and ranchers more sway in discussions about water policy.
“As they say in Austin, if you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu," he said.
Like his predecessors, Miller said he's held trade meetings – on topics including Texas beef and horses – with a host of international officials, including those from Germany, China, Nicaragua, France and Paraguay, with more scheduled.
“We have already facilitated hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales to these international markets," he said.
Miller has also focused on finances. He grabbed headlines for sounding alarms about the impact of years of budget cuts – including some he voted for and still touted on his campaign website as of this week – have inflicted on his agency. He said the department was doing a lousy job carrying out core agency functions — such as inspecting gas pumps and grocery store scanners — and as a result consumers were “getting screwed.” Miller on Friday said he recently personally inspected scales at two pawn shops – one in Waco and another in Fort Worth, finding they did not comply with state rules.
But as he took his budget concerns to the Legislature, Miller came on too strong for some lawmakers, including his former colleague Rep. Larry Gonzales, the Round Rock Republican who oversees the department’s budget on the House Appropriations Committee.
“I have never been so aggressively lobbied by a state employee in all my years here,” said Gonzales, in office since 2011 and a longtime legislative staffer before then. “He came out of the gate very aggressive, very demanding of what he thought his agency needed.”
Gonzales said his colleagues approved increases in the budget to hire new inspectors and made sure they “took care of consumers.” But he passed on the millions Miller was seeking for marketing efforts and other programs lawmakers didn’t see as necessary.
Miller said he has a good relationship with lawmakers and called Gonzales' statement "one of the best compliments" he's ever received. "I’ll take that any day – that I’m aggressive and working harder than expected.”
Earlier this month, The Texas Tribune reported that Miller had initially backed a renovation of his office, which was to include hand-scraped wood floors, terrazzo tile and a shower. The renovation was eventually put on indefinite hold.
The department has declined to provide the Tribune with a total cost estimate, but records show the department was preparing to shell out $64,000 to replace carpet with Hill Country Innovations Envy Wood Flooring.
“All of these stories are shocking to me,” Gonzales said.
In a statement to the Tribune, spokesman Bryan Black said Miller “put a stop” to the upgrade due to concerns about the agency’s budget woes.
Meanwhile, Miller's relationship with the Legislature appears to be deteriorating in other ways. In the past few weeks, he was asked to move his car off Capitol grounds after parking where he wasn't supposed to; he was denied access to the secured driveway circling the building; and while advocating for a bigger budget, Miller was asked to leave the part of the House chamber generally reserved for current members.
Miller’s personnel decisions have also drawn scrutiny. For instance, the head of Miller’s government relations team has a criminal record stemming from campaign finance abuses in Oklahoma.
Walt Roberts, assistant commissioner for legislative affairs and external relations, pleaded guilty to federal felony and misdemeanor charges in 2003. Roberts, a former Democratic state representative from McAlester, Okla., participated in a conspiracy to funnel more than $200,000 into his unsuccessful 1998 campaign for Congress, according to a 2003 U.S. Department of Justice press release.
Two weeks later, the Austin American-Statesman found that Roberts was still being paid to represent clients – and occasionally talk to lawmakers – during the first few months on Miller’s staff.
Roberts did not register as a lobbyist, a requirement for those who spend 5 percent of their time communicating with lawmakers.
Black, the spokesman, said Roberts was a "paid consultant" who did not meet the lobbyist threshold and that Miller has "full faith" in him.
It's not unusual for an agency head to have a rocky beginning in office, Combs said.
“Everybody’s entitled to kind of a rough start," she said. “Sid, I think, really wants to do well.”
But Charles Graham, an Elgin veterinarian and rancher who donated to Miller's campaign, said the commissioner's start has been anything but rough.
“He’s 100 percent for agriculture and doing a wonderful job,” he said, adding that Austin journalists were simply jealous of Miller's rising profile. “Anytime you start being successful, you get you some defectors, you following me?”
Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.