Hot Ag Issues In Texas, Washington Will Usher In New Year

Property rights and federal funding for agriculture will be at forefront of topics.

Published on: Dec 21, 2010

Lawmakers are sure to get an earful in both Texas and Washington, D.C. with the New Year.

The 112th U.S. Congress convenes in Washington with lots of new freshman faces, while the Texas Legislature gathers in Austin. The Legislature only meets in odd years in Texas, making 2011 carry extra significance, as groups already are prepared to make their case on hot issues for farmers, ranchers and property owners.

No doubt, the hottest state issue is property rights — most especially groundwater ownership.

An effort led by the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, Texas Farm Bureau, and Texas Wildlife Association, along with 10 other landowner groups, will work hard to get the Texas Legislature to reaffirm groundwater as a "vested property right" in ownership interest of groundwater beneath their land.

WATER HEATS UP.  An enormous issue for the Texas Legislature, as it convenes during January in Austin, will be reaffirming groundwater as a "vested property right" of landowners for the water beneath their land. More than 100 years of case law supports that ownership as fundamental.
WATER HEATS UP. An enormous issue for the Texas Legislature, as it convenes during January in Austin, will be reaffirming groundwater as a "vested property right" of landowners for the water beneath their land. More than 100 years of case law supports that ownership as fundamental.

"Local control is critical to the management of groundwater," says Dave Scott, a Richmond, Texas rancher and TSCRA president. "However, that management should recognize and respect landowners' property rights."

TFB delegates voted at the group's 2010 state convention in Waco on the issue, declaring a landowner's interest in the water under his land is a vested interest that gives him a constitutionally protected right to drill and produce groundwater.

Scott notes the Texas Constitution and more than 100 years of case law support groundwater ownership as a fundamental and legal right all landowners have.

TFB delegates did qualify that water— being a finite resource — will require some reasonable regulation to protect local supplies in the future.

But all the 13 groups want to see any regulations for local supplies to be done by local groundwater conservation districts so private landowners can work with their neighbors—rather than a distant state agency making and then handing down the rules.

Kenneth Dierschke, TFB president and a San Angelo farmer, says eminent domain is another red-hot issue. TFB delegates voted to support state legislation that would require proper notice be given when legislation is filed that could grant eminent domain powers. He expects Texas Gov. Rick Perry to support reform.

TFB leaders also have addressed the potential disaster for Texas grain farmers when an elevator goes out of business. TFB delegates have suggested that a statewide producer-funded commodity indemnity program be established to protect producers and ensure full payment is received for their commodities when a grain storage facility closes its doors because of financial problems.

Texas Farm Bureau also strongly opposes any move by the State of Texas to shift maintenance responsibility of the state's Farm-to-Market roads from the state to counties.

National issues big

Washington lawmakers will face many big decisions, but cuts in federal farm programs appear inevitable in the next farm bill.

"There's going to be a whole lot of looking to cut money out of what can be cut, and agriculture is going to be cut," says Dr. Joe Outlaw, Texas AgrilLife Extension Service economist.

Outlaw, who also is co-director of he Agricultural and Food Policy Center at Texas A&M University, notes only about one-quarter of 1% of the federal budget currently goes to funding for agriculture. 

About 75% of agriculture's overall federal budget goes for USDA nutrition programs. Do not expect cuts in USDA nutrition programs.

That means items like crop insurance, conservation initiatives, and commodity programs will be targets for federal agriculture funding cuts, Outlaw notes. The $5 billion in direct commodity payments is sure to be under major attack.

There currently are 37 farm bill programs amounting to about $9.8 billion that do not have any funding after the existing 2008 Farm Bill expires.

The survival of one program may hinge on cuts in other programs to provide funding, Outlaw says.  But regardless of that, all signs point to less safety net.

Craig Brown of the National Cotton Council says three challenges to a 2012 Farm Bill will be budget, Brazil (its challenges to U.S. farm programs), and baseline.

Beyond farm program key issues, TFB President Dierschke notes Farm Bureau voting delegates affirmed that enforcement of all immigration laws and border security is the responsibility of the federal government. TFB delegates also added that a state's right to pass and enforce laws to secure its borders and protect its citizens must be respected by the federal government.