This article is featured in the Fall 2021 issue of Texas LAND magazine. Click here to find out more.
The Texas Wildlife Association, the voice of Texas wildlife, Texas habitat and the people who care for them, once again spoke successfully on their behalf during the 87th Session of the Texas Legislature.
“With the uncertainty created by COVID-19—initially we weren’t even sure how much direct access would be allowed at the Capitol—we didn’t develop a huge legislative agenda,” said Doug DuBois, chairman of TWA’s Legislative Committee. “Instead we narrowed the focus of our offense, and prepared to play defense when and where necessary.”
Defense is needed every biennial session. With more than 7,000 bills filed on a mind-boggling array of subjects including returning regulars such as water, immigration and property rights, there is always something lurking in the details that can create problems for Texas landowners.
“The sheer volume of legislation filed guarantees that there will always be at least a few bills we deem harmful—those fights will have to be waged on-the-fly and in the trenches because we don’t know they’re coming until they show up,” said Joey Park, an Austin-based Legislative Consultant, who along with Legislative Consultant Mignon McGarry and TWA’s CEO David Yeates made up the organization’s paid advocates. Volunteers, members of the Legislative Committee as well as officers and general members, form the rest of the team.
Offensively, TWA turned its attention to the Sunset Bills reviewing and re-authorizing the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) and the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC) as well as continued eminent domain reform. These bills, since signed into law, are respectively: SB 700 sponsored by Sen. Dawn Buckingham (R-Lakeway)/HB 1830 by Rep. John Cyrier (R-Bastrop), SB 705 sponsored by Sen. Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville)/HB 1830 by Rep. John Cyrier (R-Bastrop), and HB 2730, sponsored by Rep. Joe Deshotel (D-Beaumont).
The Sun Didn’t Set
Every 12 years, on a rotating schedule, all Texas’ state agencies undergo a Sunset Review conducted by the Texas Sunset Commission. As part of the process, the Sunset Commission sets an expiration or “sunset” date in law for the agencies under review. The agencies will automatically be abolished on their Sunset Date unless the Legislature passes individual bills to continue each one, typically for another 12 years.
Once again, it was time for TPWD and TAHC to go under the microscope.
“Both agencies are crucial to Texas landowners, so we worked hard to ensure that the Sunset Commission understood that,” DuBois said. “We wanted them to know we not only supported the agencies’ missions but believed they are doing a good job overall for Texans.”
The process begins long before the Legislature meets. In the interim between Sessions, the Sunset Commission and staff hold meetings and hearings with stakeholders along with conducting extensive internal reviews of each agencies.
At the end of the first phase, the Sunset Commission issues a report that contains its recommendations. The recommendations’ depth and breadth vary, and may range from minor nips and tucks to internal management systems to sweeping changes such as abolishing the agency or folding a portion of its duties into another agency. When the reports emerged from the bureaucratic shadows, the ensuing recommendations for both TPWD and TAHC fell into the category of tweaks.
“The recommendations for both agencies were fairly benign,” said Park, noting most were targeted at tightening up a few internal processes. “Since the reports were straightforward and simple, so were the resulting Sunset Bills.”
In the Texas Legislature, straightforward bills don’t necessarily guarantee a straight path through either chamber. Like any other bill, Sunset Bills are subject to amendment on the floor. An attempt was made to tack some language regarding deer breeding onto TPWD’s bill. TWA blocked the move.
“We were successful in our defense; the bill passed cleanly and it was the first Sunset Bill signed by the governor,” Park said.
The action not only reauthorized agencies for the next 12 years, but served as acknowledgment of jobs well done.
“The Sunset victories are a great vote of legislative confidence for the employees and appointed commissioners at each of these agencies,” DuBois said. “By its actions, the Legislature reaffirmed that the agencies are doing a good job of serving the constituencies they are supposed to serve and a ‘go-ahead’ to keep doing what they’re doing.”
For the past six years, TWA has been leading the charge to reform the state’s eminent domain laws to give landowners a condemnation process that is more equitable and transparent. The issue pits landowners against oil and gas companies as well as other private, for-profit companies that have been granted the power of eminent domain.
“Eminent domain is a David versus Goliath fight—and private landowners are not Goliath,” said Park, noting that often the odds are 30 lobbyists:1 lobbyist in favor of the oil, gas, pipeline and powerline industries when both sides gather to wrangle in committee hearing rooms. “We’re not trying to interfere with the energy industry’s ability to do business or make a profit; our goal is—and always will be—to create fairness for those landowners who are gravely impacted by it all.”
As Texas continues to grow and drive demand for more infrastructure while fragmenting once-large ranches into smaller parcels, the need for eminent domain reform has become more urgent. Not only are there more pipelines and transmission lines sprawling across rural Texas, but they have a bigger impact on smaller properties. For instance, a pipeline bisecting a 200-acre homestead in the Hill Country leaves a much bigger footprint than a pipeline snaking through 250,000 acres of South Texas brush.
“Texas is growing—and that growth is cutting into private land,” Park said. “It’s an issue that isn’t going away, so we’re going to keep working with industry to find solutions.”
Texas is growing—and that growth is cutting into private land. It’s an issue that isn’t going away, so we’re going to keep working with industry to find solutions.”—JOEY PARK Austin-based Legislative Consultant
TWA and like-minded organizations worked with a sponsor to submit a bill. For the first time, the oil and gas industry brought its own bill to the table.
“The fact that the industry brought a bill to the table is a significant shift,” Park said. “In the past, the industry simply played defense.”
Sponsors met. Negotiations produced a bill that was passed almost unanimously by both chambers. The bill increases information provided to landowners about eminent domain by the state, sets minimum easement terms requiring companies to disclose contract terms up front, and give the right to file complaints against right-of-way agents.
While the resulting legislation didn’t accomplish everything TWA wanted, it is a milestone nonetheless.
“HB 2730 lays the foundation for meaningful reform,” Park said. “Perhaps, even more importantly, though, the bill’s almost-unanimous passage signals that the Legislature, for the first time, agrees that something must be done to fix it [eminent domain].”
Fingers on the Phone
Each session, the divide between urban and rural Texas continues to grow as population in our major cities and suburbs continues to skyrocket. As is often noted, there are more representatives in Harris County, home to Houston, than there are west of the I-35 corridor.
As a result, TWA’s legislative team has to educate as well as advocate.
“Often, legislators who serve urban and suburban constituents not only don’t understand rural issues, but they don’t understand how rural issues impact their lives in the cities,” Park said. “If food comes from H-E-B and water comes from the tap as many assume, why should they be concerned?”
Under those circumstances, it’s easy for rural issues to get overshadowed by social issues such as transgender athletics, emerging concerns such as this session’s big elephant, reform of ERCOT and stability in the electrical grid, and the always contentious and difficult appropriations process.
With 150 state representatives and 31 state senators, TWA’s three professionals and a handful of volunteers can’t tackle the Herculean job of telling rural Texas’ story alone. To that end, it’s imperative that Texas landowners establish personal relationships of their own.
“It’s less about storming the Capitol and more about contacting your local legislators and communicating with them regularly,” Park said. “The more direct points of contact that we have, the better chance we have to ensure that officials hear our side of the story.”
Legislators value personal connections with trusted information sources more than the public suspects. Texas legislators are part-time public servants. Most work other jobs.
“It is impossible for them to know everything about everything—and they shouldn’t have to,” Park said. “They rely on input from the people who their policies impact to help them make informed decisions.”
Landowners who live in metro areas but own rural properties are in a unique position, DuBois said. They, as urban constituents, can showcase rural concerns and educate outside the session. TWA, as an organization, often hosts retreats on private ranches to help legislators and their staffs understand the state’s landscape and its impact through ecological
services. Individual landowners can do the same thing.
“Sometimes it’s as simple as making an urban legislator aware that they have constituents who need help on rural issues,” Park said. “It’s all about communication and relationship building.”
In the past, legislative influence used to be flexed by “boots on the ground.” These days, “fingers on the phone” can be just as effective.
“When landowners can call or text legislators on their phones—and the legislators pick up—those relationships are priceless,” Park said. “There is no way to express the value to rural Texas.”
For more information about TWA, its programs and its membership, go to Texas-Wildlife.org.