Agriculture department likely to lose gas regulation authority

0
Austin

The Texas House on Wednesday all but guaranteed the state will take away the regulation of gas pumps and gas quality from the Department of Agriculture and turn it over to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation.

The Senate’s version of the bill, which initially passed by a vote of 27-4 on April 11, passed to a final reading by a voice vote in the House Wednesday. Because amendments were approved, the bill must go back to the Senate for a final vote before it can be sent on to Gov. Greg Abbott to become law.

The amendments add emphasis to a bill that makes it clear the legislature wants the Department of Agriculture out of the gasoline regulation business altogether.

Because the transfer of regulatory authority will not take effect until September 2020, one amendment prohibits Agriculture from changing any of the current rules, fees, policies and procedures relating to its current gasoline regulatory programs.

A second amendment requires Agriculture to get the OK of Licensing and Regulation — the agency that gas regulation is being transferred to — before acting on any gasoline pump-related complaints during the time it still has authority.

The amendments were clearly directed at statements made by Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who objected to the regulatory authority being taken away from his department.

“Senate Bill 2119 is the greatest threat to Texas consumer protection in a generation,” Miller told The Texas Monitor. “The fuel lobbyists have done the impossible. They have convinced the legislature to give gas stations what amounts to a yearlong pass on being regulated.”

Miller said the amendments kick off “the Wild Wild West for Texas gas stations.  De facto deregulation for a year.”

In addition to pause in regulation, the bill reduces the maximum fines for gasoline-related violations from the current maximum of $10,000 to $500 when the Licensing and Regulation takes over.

“With such small penalties, the gas station owner has lost the incentive to even fix the problem,” Miller said.

The authors of the Senate bill, state Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, and the House bill, state Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, have steered clear of direct confrontation with Miller over the move.

With the rise of the automobile and the fuel industry in the early part of the last century, regulatory duties fell to agriculture agents, then the most widely dispersed state employees in Texas. As The Texas Monitor reported in April, Goldman filed his bill to shift that regulatory function to an agency created by the legislature in 1989 for that express function.

However, Miller has been very public about his belief that the move is a personal slap. One of the first things Miller did after taking over as agriculture commissioner was to spend $90,000 to redesign and replace the state stickers on all of the state’s gas pumps to add  “Commissioner Sid Miller” in bold lettering at the top.

In an interview with The Texas Monitor last month, Miller touted the job his department had done on inspections on gas quality and on making sure pumps weren’t shortchanging customers. He also lauded the development of a program to go after credit card skimming — the illegal reading of credit card information — from the card swipers on gas pumps.

“The day this bill takes effect,” Miller said in his statement, “TDA will be barred from putting out skimmer alerts. Texas drivers will no longer be notified when an illegal credit card skimmer is found in their local gas station.”

But at a committee hearing to discuss the bill last month, Paul Hardin, president of the Texas Food and Fuel Association, said the calibrating of gas pumps and inspections to prevent fouled gasoline was already being done — and more effectively — by the retailers.

Hardin objected to Miller’s “political grandstanding” and was particularly piqued by an email Miller sent to every elected official in the state branding people like him as “shady lobbyists.”

“As I’ve always said, here at TDA [Texas Department of Agriculture] there are three things we do not tolerate: liars, cheats and horse thieves,” Miller told lawmakers in his email. “I can add TFFA [Texas Food and Fuel Association] to this list.”

“It’s hard not to take it personally when he calls you cheats, liars and horse thieves,” Hardin told The Texas Monitor. “I feel our industry has been picked on and used as a kind of election prop.”

Hardin said Miller has consistently exaggerated the need for gasoline regulation for political gain and assumed responsibility for a credit card skimming problem that is a law enforcement responsibility.

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here