For legislators, house-cleaning means trimming Sid Miller’s power

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Gas pump

To all appearances, House Bill 1695’s easy trip through a Texas House committee was one of the less interesting things that happened at the state capitol last week. Supporters described it as just as bit of regulatory house-cleaning, moving responsibility for a boring task from one agency to another.

For Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, however, it was the latest in a cluster of political landmines that have been exploding in his path since he took office in January 2015.

If it passes as expected, the bill would move the regulation of gas pumps and gas quality out of the agriculture department and over to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation. The transition, to be completed by September 2020, would have no significant impact on state taxpayers, according to a cost analysis by the Legislative Budget Board.

Miller surprised legislators last Thursday with a written statement questioning the motives of the bill’s author, state Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, and the bill’s principal supporter, the Texas Food and Fuel Association, which represents the owners of gas stations and convenience stores.

“As I’ve always said, here at TDA there are three things we do not tolerate:  liars, cheats and horse thieves,” Miller wrote. “I can add TFFA to this list.”

Miller then surprised the members of the House International Relations & Economic Development Committee by testifying against the bill in his capacity as the commissioner, raising concerns that he was in violation of the prohibition on lobbying by a state employee. Agency officials routinely testify on bills, often at the request of legislators, to provide factual information about agency operations and the impact a bill would have on them — but not to urge passage or defeat of the bill.

“Your constituents will be screwed if this bill passes, I promise you,” he told committee members.

Miller repeated his colorful warning several times in an interview with The Texas Monitor. He was unrepentant about lobbying for the defeat of the bill, citing a Texas Government Code section that protects a statewide elected official from punishment for taking such stands.

“Higher-ups” — he couldn’t say exactly who — engineered this bill to take whatever authority away from him they could within the law, the commissioner said.

“That inspection program is the most efficient it’s ever been and my reward for doing that is to have it taken away,” he said, but he wouldn’t explain why he thinks he’s being targeted.

Goldman filed the bill to modernize a state regulatory function, Amanda Robertson, his chief of staff, told The Texas Monitor. While it might seem odd today that an agency concerned primarily with ranching and farming would be a gas station regulator, agriculture agents were the most widely dispersed state employees at the time automobiles and trucks took over the roads, she said. Not so strange, really, in a state where the Texas Railroad Commission oversees much of the oil and gas industry.

Since the licensing and regulation agency took its current name in 1989, the legislature has moved licensing and regulatory authority for various businesses under that agency’s purview.

The Texas Food and Fuel Association agrees with that reason for the bill, but also supports it because Miller “has been using the state’s gas pumps for his own political grandstanding,” association president Paul Hardin said.

“This has never been personal, but it’s hard not to take it personally when he calls you cheats, liars and horse thieves,” Hardin told The Texas Monitor Thursday. “I feel our industry has been picked on and used as a kind of election prop.”

The prop Hardin is talking about is a sticker on the front of more than 170,000 gas pumps in Texas. “Commissioner Sid Miller” appears in big bold lettering at the top, with a big Department of Agriculture logo to the right. At the bottom is the amount of federal and state taxes levied on each gallon of gas and a disclaimer that says those taxes are not set by the Department of Agriculture or the Texas Agriculture Commissioner.

Miller spent more than $90,000 of the agency’s money on the stickers. While past commissioners had issued such stickers, none gave their own names top billing, nor did they add any sort of editorial comment about gas taxes or anything else.

Although as a state representative Miller voted for steep budget cuts during the recessionary 2011 session, the self-described fiscal conservative asked the legislature in 2015 to provide $50 million for his department, which would have been a 50 percent increase for the next biennium, The Texas Monitor reported.

Texas Tribune reporter Jay Root learned that Miller’s proposed budget included an expensive remodeling of his office and that Miller had hired the wife of his chief political consultant as assistant commissioner of operations, at $180,000 salary, to direct the remodeling.

Rather than grant Miller’s request, the legislature cut the state portion of his budget by about $1 million. Miller’s immediate response was Operation Maverick, an across-the-board hike in every license or regulatory fee in Agriculture’s jurisdiction. The agency took in $27.3 million in fees the following year, most of it from the doubling of inspection fees on scales an increase that the attorney general invalidated last April. When Miller in 2017 asked for more gas pump inspectors, the legislature responded by overwhelmingly passing a bill requiring the inspections to be outsourced.

Testifying last week before the committee, Miller took credit for reducing the number of miles traveled by his inspectors by 750,000, but did not provide data to show how much of that slack was picked up by the contracted inspectors.

In the age of technology and of social media, most retailers have installed sensors in their tanks and calibrate the discharge of their gas pumps, Hardin said.

According to his department, the number of complaints — about 200 annually — has been flat for several years. Pump and gas quality inspections show retailers have been consistently at about 95 percent compliance. At the hearing, Miller acknowledged that in 9 out of 10 cases of a calibration problem, the consumer has gotten the better end of the deal.

Miller is undaunted. He has asked the legislature for an extra $2 million to step up what he says is a very successful program to track credit card skimming at gas pumps. How successful isn’t clear because Miller says the current law prohibits his inspectors from investigating until a retailer has filed three complaints with his department. “What you have now is an agency checking the checkers,” Hardin said.

Credit card skimming, Hardin said, is a criminal not a regulatory matter and something that is already being handled by consumers and law enforcement.

In his statement to legislators, Miller said Hardin’s organization doesn’t want his gas pump programs to succeed because it makes their member retailers look bad. He wishes consumers better understood what’s at stake.

“It’s going to be a sad day when Gov. Abbott signs that bill,” Miller said. “Consumers are in for a screwing, I can tell you that.”

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected]

 

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