Among the more than 600 bills already filed and ready for consideration when the Texas Legislature convenes on Jan. 8, House Bill 32 could easily get lost. Before that happens, however, it may provide a great lesson in how laws get made – or don’t.
The author of HB 32, state Rep. Mary Gonzales, is asking that the state for the first time to require that commercial buyers of pecans be licensed — but only in the “five westernmost counties in this state in which pecans are produced.” Failure to get a license would constitute a misdemeanor, and fines could be assessed.
The El Paso Democrat’s bill does not explain why buyers in those counties, and those counties only, need to pay up to $400 for a license. She didn’t respond to a request by The Texas Monitor to explain her bill.
Rodney Strange, a West Texas pecan grower and curator of all things pecan on his website, Texas Pecan Trees, was not aware of the bill until told about it by The Texas Monitor. After reading it, he called it irrational.
“As is typical with the Texas Legislature, yet another attempt to tackle an issue by initiating a revenue-producing fee of $400,” Strange said.
It is the kind of bill, “done at the behest of private and not public interests,” that has resulted in the unnecessary licencing of hundreds of occupations in Texas, said Arif Panju, an attorney whose work for the Institute for Justice in Austin has resulted in the repeal of several licensing requirements. The institute describes itself as “the National Law Firm for Liberty” and says it litigates “to limit the size and scope of government power.”
The bill could be — or could be made to look like — an attempt to deal with pecan weevil infestation. The only five of Texas’ 254 counties in Texas not under quarantine for the weevil are in the El Paso region, according to Southwest FarmPress. Gonzales’ proposal for licensing includes a provision that pecan buyers be made to complete a “pecan weevil education program,” developed by the Texas Department of Agriculture.
Or it could be aimed at pecan theft, which is becoming more of a problem in neighboring New Mexico. Gonzalez’ bill tracks closely a bill passed by New Mexico legislators in February. Only problem is that there’s been no indication that pecan buyers are involved in the thefts.
What it may boil down to is a legislator protecting an industry with clout in her area, at the expense of others — a very familiar pattern in Texas whether the industry is the behemoth of oil and gas or the much more modest pecan lobby.
The Texas Pecan Growers Association did not respond to a request about whether it supports the bill.
Gonzalez represents many of the growers in the area outlined in her bill. She is the vice-chairman of the House Agriculture & Livestock Committee. In February at a hearing in El Paso, the committee heard from pecan growers who complained that something ought to be done to protect growers from the scourge of the pecan weevil.
Strange, whose orchards are in Terry County, about 40 miles southwest of Lubbock and outside the area outlined in the bill, said if the goal is weevil prevention, licensing buyers makes no sense as a tactic.
Pecan weevil infestation has spread, Strange said, because the federal Environmental Protection Agency in the name of public health forced Texas to license pesticide use and charge for for pesticide training, he said.
“I’m not one who believes the government can solve all my problems, especially by imposing a $400 license fee on me rather than help me control a weevil infestation,” Strange said. “An aggressive eradication program is the solution to the pecan weevil, not forcing fees upon pecan buyers and shellers.”
Texas, New Mexico and Georgia are by far the largest pecan producing states in the country. Together, the three states produce more than 75 percent of all the pecans produced by the biggest pecan producing country in the world. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Last year, Georgia produced 107 million pounds of pecans, New Mexico set a state record of 92 million pounds and Texas added more than 70 million pounds, according to USDA data.
At the end of 2017, New Mexico’s major pecan growers complained to the state’s department of agriculture that pecan theft was a growing and expensive problem.
While the growers provided only anecdotal evidence and the agriculture department never defined the scope of the problem, the New Mexico Legislature in February passed Senate Bill 217, determining the solution to theft was the licensing of all wholesale pecan buyers in that state.
The New Mexico law is nearly identical to the Gonzalez bill in asking for a fee of $500 and requiring buyers to keep records that are subject to agriculture department inspection. According to the New Mexico bill’s fiscal impact statement, fewer than 50 businesses would be subject to the licensing.
The bill, however, isn’t clear about why the burden of pecan theft should fall to pecan buyers, who have not been implicated in illegal activity.
This push from the pecan growers also comes during an international trade war. China, one of the world’s fastest growing markets, imposed a 47 percent tariff on pecans in retaliation for tariffs on other products dictated this summer by President Trump.
At the same time, the per-pound price of pecans is down to $2.16 compared to $2.80 at this time a year ago, because of the record yields in Texas and the other major producing states and from Mexico, Strange said.
Bills like HB 32 are a product of political pressure to protect an industry by shifting a regulatory burden somewhere else, Panju said. Because those five West Texas counties are responsible for about half of all pecan production in the state, those growers are exercising their clout, he said.
“This bill is everything that’s wrong with occupational licensing,” Panju said. “You shouldn’t need government’s permission to work.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].