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Ag Agency's Fee Hikes Plant Seeds of Discontent

Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller says he's prepared to "put on my rawhide underwear and take all the chewings" as the agriculture community protests a wide range of rate hikes at his agency.

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

Sid Miller says he is no fan of fees.

“I hate fees probably just about as bad as anybody,” the self-described hardline fiscal conservative said in an interview. “Part of the way I gained my reputation as a tough legislator was, I probably killed more fee bills than anyone in the House.”

But the former Texas representative-turned-agriculture commissioner is drawing criticism from industry groups and state lawmakers over that very issue; his agency is poised to hike fees for a long list of licenses, registrations and services it provides. In some cases, fees are more than doubling.

Need to renew your grain warehouse license? That could cost you $500, up from $235. 

Want to register a pesticide product with the state for the next two years? The proposed fee is $600, no longer $420.

Prices for field inspections to certify seeds would increase anywhere from a few cents to more than a dollar per acre, while application fees would at least double. Costs for licenses to sell eggs would rise significantly, along with prices to weigh and measure goods.

The new fees, proposed in October, are scheduled to kick in on Dec. 1. 

(See the full list of proposed fees here.)

Miller said the increases “pain me greatly,” and he’s prepared to face any criticism.

“I’ll put on my rawhide underwear and take all the chewings,” he said.

That underwear may get an integrity test. Unsurprisingly, some agriculture groups aren’t happy, concerned that the added costs will ripple through rural economies.

“We question the need for these increases in fees,” Russell Boening, president of the Texas Farm Bureau, wrote to Miller last Friday, saying his department “has not demonstrated that the increases will result in an increase in services provided. An increase in fees with no increase in service or benefits is difficult to justify.”

Gene Hall, a spokesman for the Farm Bureau, said the letter spoke for itself.

State lawmakers are irked, too.

Rep. John Otto, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, wrote of his “deep concerns” about the hikes. Seventy-one of his House colleagues signed on to the letter, dated last Friday.

“The stakeholder community has indicated that these fee increases could potentially have a dire impact on individual industries, the agricultural economy at large, and consumers,” said the letter, which called the need for the increases “questionable.” 

But Miller said the state's ag industry is reaping what the legislature sowed. When they decided not restore huge cuts made to the agency's budget in 2011, Miller said, lawmakers made it more dependent on fees, including some that hadn't been raised for a decade or more. 

That left the agency with two options, the Republican said: cut essential services or hike fees.

“It’ll help make sure that your children aren’t poisoned, and that your family won’t get E. Coli or salmonella,” he said.

The agriculture department has a wide range of duties, including checking gas pumps for accuracy, verifying that grocery store scanners work properly, checking that metal scales properly display weights, along with licensing and certifying agricultural products. 

Miller says he has spent much of this year tackling a massive backlog of suspected violations and trying to make inspections more efficient after experiencing a rude awakening during his first days in statewide office — lax enforcement that led him to conclude consumers were “getting screwed.”

Miller also asked the Legislature last session for nearly $50 million to restore cuts from 2011 that shrunk agency staff, and he clashed with lawmakers along the way. The Legislature did not oblige.

But some lawmakers say Miller is talking through his wide-brimmed hat.

Rep. Larry Gonzales, who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees the department’s budget, said when Miller asked lawmakers for a 50 percent hike in his agency's budget, most of the money wasn't to plug the gaps Miller now describes.

Instead, it would have added new programs, including some duplicating functions at other agencies, he said. Lawmakers did approve $1.5 million to bolster weights and measures inspections at the agency, an effort to protect consumers.  

“What he was asking for was an expansion of government that we had not seen from an agency like that,” said Gonzales, R-Round Rock. “They are tax increases that the legislature said no to, but he is now doing on his own.”

Gonzales also pointed out that Miller, as a lawmaker, championed the 2011 cuts he now decries. "He was proud of the cuts he made. That’s the difficulty for me," he said. "Now, he wants his money, and there’s a hypocrisy there that doesn’t sit well with me."

Other critics say they understand that the department may need to raise fees in some instances, but they want it to provide more evidence showing why particular hikes are needed. 

The agency’s 94-page “Cost Recovery Rate Analysis” did not provide enough specifics, they say. 

“What we’re concerned about is the size of the increases,” Otto, R-Dayton, said in an interview. “I’m not questioning there may in some instances be a need. The question is what’s the appropriate amount.”

Otto and industry groups say they want more discussion before fees rise. Until that happens, he's calling on the department to suspend the increases. 

“I think all the stakeholders need to come together, and let's get factual information,” he said. 

Miller's office said it has no plans to put off the changes right now, but it has begun reviewing public comments on the proposal. The commenting period ended Sunday.

Disclosure: The Texas Farm Bureau is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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