Much of the race for Texas Agriculture Commissioner centers on food — whether immigrants should be able to help harvest it, how crops are traded or what items schools can serve students for lunch. Democrat Kim Olson, a farmer and Air Force veteran, is challenging the incumbent, Republican Sid Miller.
In the latest edition of our Split Decision virtual debate series, watch Olson and Miller discuss these issues, as well as Miller's presence on social media and more. Stick to the end to learn which of the two candidates is better at guessing the weight of some BBQ.
Olson is critical of what Miller's done over his first term as agriculture commissioner, including the fees he raised on farmers and ranchers in 2016 that an audit showed raised millions more dollars than necessary. Miller highlighted reforms he said he's made at the Texas Department of Agriculture, including increased inspections and expanded foreign markets.
The two also see President Donald Trump's tough trade policies very differently. Olson says Trump's tariffs on Chinese imports are hurting Texas farmers and beef producers. Texas' beef industry recently started re-establishing a relationship with China after a 14-year ban on U.S. beef exports to the country was lifted last year. Miller counters that the U.S. "hasn't really gained the beef market back" and added that he's confident that, ultimately, the president will make good on his promise to protect rural America.
When it comes to the state's school lunch program, which the TDA oversees, Olson and Miller again part ways in the debate over local control. Both stress the importance of giving school districts a say, but Olson calls Miller "hypocritical" for attacking an attempt by the Dripping Springs school district to have "Meatless Mondays." Miller defends his decision to intervene, calling the initiative not "nutritionally sound."
Miller has also made headlines for his opposition to a law the legislature passed last year that gives retailers who sell food "for immediate consumption" a pass on using scales registered by the TDA. Miller called the law, "horse hockey," and said while he trusts his local barbecue guy, he thinks consumers should be able to verify "that when I buy two pounds of brisket at $15, I'm getting two pounds of brisket." He's at odds with the Texas Attorney General who, earlier this year, issued a nonbinding opinion siding with the barbecue joints.
Olson said there's more important things for the TDA to focus on.
Despite their differences, the pair does agree on an issue that typically draws more debate among general election candidates: immigration. Both Miller and Olson said the federal government should launch a guest worker program to allow foreign workers to temporarily reside and work here in industries in desperate need of labor such as agriculture.
While Olson's never run for statewide office, she has had to answer for her past. In the mid-2000s, at the end of a long career as one of the Air Force’s first female pilots, the Pentagon accused her of steering government contracts to a private security firm that military investigators said she helped operate while she was stationed in Iraq.
She denied the charges and eventually pled guilty to two lesser offenses, including creating the appearance of a conflict of interest. She was allowed to retire with an honorable discharge and no reduction in rank, but she received a formal reprimand and a $3,500 fine. Miller said he's not making an issue of it in the race, and that voters can judge for themselves whether it matters.