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Analysis: Sid Miller's Lonely Political Rodeo

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller's itch for public attention earned him his latest headline, aided by his overdeveloped political reflex for deflecting blame. But the attention comes at an inopportune time.

Sid Miller, who was elected agriculture commissioner in November 2014, is shown at Day 3 of the Texas Republican Convention in Fort Worth on June 7, 2014.

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Is this a good time for Sid Miller to bring more attention to himself?

The state’s agriculture commissioner is in a political vise of his own design, squeezed by his thrift and his narcissism — on one hand, a tendency to save his own or his campaign’s money by billing taxpayers for personal expenses, and on the other, his continual striving for public attention, this time by boosting the size and placement of his name on state-regulated gas pumps.

The Texas Rangers, encouraged by Gov. Greg Abbott, are investigating Miller’s expenses — specifically, his travel records — after reports that he went to Oklahoma for a cure-all known as a “Jesus Shot,” and to Mississippi to compete (and win a cash prize) in a calf-roping competition.

It’s not illegal to pursue hobbies and folk remedies, but Miller initially charged both trips to the state’s taxpayers. He later repaid the state but managed to attract attention from the state police anyway.

The commissioner’s itch for public attention earned him his latest headline, aided by his overdeveloped political reflex for deflecting blame.

Ag commissioners in Texas handle many of the chores that used to belong to outmoded weights and measures officials, among them the duty to check gasoline pumps for accuracy and to post tax notices on the pumps as they do so.

Miller, who has been in the job since January 2015, unveiled revised stickers this month in response to a legislative change — but revised them in ways lawmakers didn’t require or foresee.

He made his name more prominent, increasing the font size and moving it to the top of the sticker — you never know how many voters might remember it just enough to nudge them next time he’s on the ballot.

State officials are notorious for that kind of stuff, putting their names and faces on everything where it might fit.

They know this about themselves, too: When they wrote the laws implementing the Texas Lottery — then under the management of a politically ambitious state comptroller of public accounts — lawmakers took the expected popularity of gambling into account. As a result, this is written into state law: “A state officer ... may not appear in an advertisement or promotion for the lottery that is sponsored by the commission or in a televised lottery drawing. An advertisement or promotion for the lottery may not contain the likeness or name of a state officer, including a commission member or the executive director, or an officer or employee of the commission.”

They didn’t say you can’t put your name on the stickers on gas pumps, though. The stamps from Miller aren’t all that surprising, but they are the latest example of the “Look at me!” impulse so common among political people. He is not alone: Take a tour of the websites for the governor, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the comptroller, the land commissioner. It’s legal. It’s normal. And Miller’s Department of Agriculture is not really an outlier.

It’s the other stuff on the sticker that elevates Miller’s latest stunt — the notice that the high gasoline taxes detailed on the stamp are not his fault. He’s a good guy, right? He wants the taxpayers to know it.

“All motor fuel taxes are set by the U.S. Congress and Texas State Legislature, NOT by the Texas Department of Agriculture or Texas Agriculture Commissioner,” it reads.

The tax information itself is required by a new law passed last year. The disclaimer was not. And Miller, a former legislator himself, certainly knows that even as he covers his tail with that disclaimer, he’s tweaking the noses of his former colleagues in the Texas House.

Don’t blame them if they see some irony here. Miller asked for a big budget increase when the Legislature met last year. He got a lot less than he wanted, but he found another way to bring in some money, raising a range of fees on licensing and regulation administered by his department. 

That’s not on a sticker anywhere.

It’s easy to see why so few of Miller's fellow Republicans have come to his defense. He’s been a little too quick to throw them in the grease. And the state police are investigating his official conduct. 

Last week, the governor said through a spokesman that the investigation is warranted.

Remember the brisk and forceful public defense raised by Republicans when former Gov. Rick Perry was indicted a couple of years ago?

There has been no such muster for Yosemite Sid — the stout, blustery, slightly foppish rodeo enthusiast known for the cowboy hat that rarely leaves his head even when he is indoors.

This particular rodeo isn’t a team sport.

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Politics State government Sid Miller Texas Legislature