Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, responding to pressure by lawmakers and farm groups, has announced he will delay increasing a long list of proposed fees the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) will impose on farmers and ranchers to support administration of state and federal programs.
Miller announced the multi-million dollar fee hikes earlier this year in what he said was a strategy to help generate funds to offset a major shortfall in the agriculture department's two-year operating budget. Shortly after making the announcement lawmakers and farm groups vocally opposed the hikes and joined forces to send what some called a clear message that Texas farmers and ranchers oppose the move, especially given the current downturn in farm and ranch income and escalating input costs.
In the very least, farm groups said they needed more time to prepare for such large hikes in the state's fee structure.
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Miller caved to the pressure and last Friday issued a statement indicating he was delaying the new fee hikes until Jan. 1, at least until the Legislative Board can review a request to transfer appropriations within the agency to use “unexpended balances” to address operating budget shortfalls.
Miller said Friday the fee hikes would have been necessary to meet a Legislative mandate to recover the cost of administering federal programs from the industries that benefited the most from them.
“Such authority would give much needed flexibility in working to implement a fee schedule that meets the Legislature’s full cost recovery mandate. This could also impact the scope of changes to TDA’s fee schedule in the long run,” Miller said.
Without changes in that mandate and more flexibility to address the issue, he said hefty fee changes will be required, including increases in fees for pesticide applicator certification and product registration, seed certification, weights and measures, eggs, grain warehouse inspections and other programs managed by TDA.
INCREASED PROGRAM COSTS
The fee hikes were scheduled to go into effect Dec. 8 to cover what Miller estimated would be an additional $11.3 million in annual program costs a year for the next two years.
Leading the opposition to the fee increase has been Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and a number of other lawmakers who say a delay in fee hikes is required to avoid “a harmful economic impact” to the state's agricultural industry. Patrick said lawmakers needed more time to review the adverse effects of such large fee hikes in order to prevent additional setbacks to an industry already suffering from financial pressures.
More than 70 lawmakers in the House signed a letter earlier this month asking Miller to postpone fee hikes to avoid what they termed “catastrophic economic difficulties” to the industry statewide. The Texas Senate Committee on Agriculture, Water and Rural Affairs has scheduled a Dec. 8 hearing on the measure.
Miller blames Texas lawmakers for needed fee hikes after they denied his request for additional state funding for the forthcoming two-year budget. But a former legislative assistant in Austin, who commented only under conditions of anonymity, said he believed Miller's move was a play to force lawmakers to approve what he said may have been an inflated budget request.
But Miller puts the blame squarely on lawmakers who he said forced the need to raise fees in order to erase a budget shortfall they created by denying his initial budget request.
The hope for avoiding excessive fee hikes now rests with the State Legislature.