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After Outcry, Miller Delays Hikes on Agriculture Fees

Gabriel Cristóver Pérez
The Texas Tribune
Sid Miller speaks at The Texas Tribune Festival on Sept. 20, 2014.

In response to widespread concerns from state lawmakers and the agriculture community, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller will wait to hike fees on many licenses, registrations and services that his agency provides.

The fee increases will now kick in Jan. 1 rather than Dec. 1, the Republican announced Friday, saying “much of the feedback” his agency received on its proposal called for “a delay in implementing the new rules to give industry stakeholders additional time to plan for changes.”

Last week, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick joined industry groups such as the Texas Farm Bureau and at least 72 House lawmakers in opposing the fee increases, which would raise millions of dollars that Miller says are needed for the agency to continue to meet its diverse assortment of duties, including licensing, certifying and inspecting agricultural goods such as eggs.

Miller says the Legislature has left his agency underfunded and increasingly dependent on fees ever since it slashed its budget in 2011. Critics point out that Miller championed those cuts during his days in the Texas House. And they say his recent push for funding before the Legislature would have expanded government rather than addressing the problems he has identified.

In a statement Friday, Miller largely stuck to the guns he wears on his suit jacket lapel, saying his department continued to “exhaust every available budget option” but would push back the fee hikes while requesting two “critical budgeting tools” from the Legislative Budget Board that would give the agency more flexibility.

Miller is asking for authority to carry over “unexpended balances,” which would allow him to use any extra fee revenue from 2016 to pay bills in 2017. He also wants more flexibility to transfer revenue between divisions.

Under the current setup, specific fees can only be used for specific programs, and fees from one year can’t transfer to the next.

“I look forward to continuing to work with industry stakeholders and the members of the Legislature to ensure [the agency] can meet its statutory obligations,” Miller’s statement said.

The increases are significant. Prices for field inspections to certify seeds, for instance, would increase anywhere from a few cents to more than a dollar per acre, while application fees would at least double.

Lawmakers and others are calling on Miller to explain the rationale behind each increase.

“We hope that it’s not just a delay of what he originally proposed, but there’s actually a chance to have some input into the process,” said Gene Hall, a spokesman for the Texas Farm Bureau.

With the delay, the new fees won’t apply until after Miller directly fields questions from Senate lawmakers. He’s scheduled to appear at a Dec. 8 hearing of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Water and Rural Affairs.

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.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2015/11/20/following-outcry-miller-delays-hikes-agriculture-f/.