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House delivers rebuke to TABC, cuts travel budget

The Texas House on Thursday voted unanimously to cut the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission's travel budget and restrict its use of money from outside groups.

This graphic humorously references a trip that top state liquor regulators took to the National Conference of State Liquor Administrators in 2015 at a cost of more than $7,000 in taxpayer money. The illustration was created by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission during work hours on a state computer with input from top agency officials, records show. Pictured from left to right are TABC Director Sherry Cook, Licensing Director Amy Harrison, Analyst Jesse Valdez and then-TABC technology contractor Jim Andrews.  

The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission got a swift and harsh rebuke Thursday from the Texas House of Representatives, which voted unanimously to bar most out-of-state trips by the agency and restrict its use of money from outside groups that are funded by the liquor industry. 

The move, which would take effect this summer, comes after The Texas Tribune reported that TABC honchos have spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars traveling to swanky resorts outside Texas and staged conferences at home with help from the liquor industry. 

The bipartisan proposal was attached as an amendment to a budget bill that impacts the current fiscal year. It would bar the agency from using state money to travel out of state unless it's for "bonafide and documented law enforcement or investigative activities." It would also stop the agency or its employees from accepting payments or spending authority from “any trade, professional or industry organization ... for any purpose."

“My taxpayers that I serve demanded it, and we reacted,” said Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, who authored the proposal. “We’re sending a message, hopefully to other agencies, that we need to be mindful of the tax dollars.” 

Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth, who joined Isaac as a co-sponsor of the amendment, said he wanted TABC to focus on its core mission of enforcing alcohol laws instead of going on junkets out of state or using an expense account from a group that gets funding from the very industry it's supposed to regulate.

His message to TABC: “Focus and stay in your lane.”

The TABC, which was already planning to send a delegation to a National Conference of State Liquor Administrators (NCSLA) conference in Denver this summer, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 

The Tribune has reported in recent days that TABC spent tens of thousands of dollars to send employees to conferences as far away as Hawaii, California and Florida; the TABC brass has also taken thousands of dollars in travel reimbursements from the NCSLA, largely funded by contributions from the alcohol industry.

Closer to home, TABC has served as host over the past three years for NCSLA conferences in San Antonio and Austin, where liquor industry contributions largely financed gatherings that included dinners and cocktail parties, mariachi singers, square dancers and an open bar.

State Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, came to TABC’s defense during the debate on the floor, suggesting it wasn’t fair to single out one agency when others might be doing the same — or worse. 

“When we’re going to go after something, let’s be fair about it. Let’s not just pick on one little agency because I promise you there are others that you’d probably be even madder about,” Raymond said.

After Raymond spoke, state Rep. Sarah Davis, the Houston Republican who chairs the House Committee on General Investigating & Ethics, took note of the controversial flier that the agency created ahead of one of the NCSLA conferences. Created with input and oversight from top TABC officials, the flier depicts Executive Director Sherry Cook and other agency honchos riding in a plane while holding or guzzling from bottles of Lone Star Beer.

"Here we come California!" reads the caption above the doctored picture. "Woo Hoo!!!" 

Speaking from the back microphone on the House floor, Davis asked Isaac: “Are you aware of any other agencies that have created these types of fliers depicting themselves partying?” 

Isaac deadpanned: “No, I have not seen one that depicts people partying and celebrating using taxpayer dollars.”

The House adopted the amendment on a voice vote, a procedure used when there is wide agreement in the chamber. It was attached to the “supplemental” spending bill, House Bill 2, which impacts the current budget. That means it would take effect almost immediately and restrict TABC's out-of-state travel and ties with outside groups through the end of the current fiscal year. The bill still must be approved by the Senate and signed by the governor before becoming law.

It’s only the first salvo. Isaac, Romero and possibly others will be debating wing-clipping amendments for TABC later Thursday, as the House considers the multibillion-dollar budget for the 2018-19 fiscal years. 

Isaac said he would welcome Raymond’s suggestion to look at other agencies during that process. In the meantime, he said he’s going to keep the heat on state liquor regulators.

“Maybe in the budgeting cycle over the next 24 hours we’ll hear some amendments that target other agencies,” Isaac said, “but when you have one that’s acting as nefarious as TABC, it’s time to clip their wings and cut them back.”

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State government 85th Legislative Session State agencies Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission Texas Legislature