By GRACE GADDY
Two Republican candidates running for Texas Agriculture Commissioner in the March 4 primary elections shared their positions on current issues during an open forum held Tuesday at the Ben E. Keith Community Room. Citizens for the Constitution of Anderson County hosted the event.
Candidates Eric Opiela and Sid Miller answered questions submitted by audience members, posed by farm and ranch news writer Horace McQueen, who moderated the event.
Candidates were given one minute to introduce themselves, followed by questions and two-minute summations, respectively.
In order of discussion, Eric Opiela began by saying it was important for the next Texas Agriculture Commissioner to have a background in rural Texas and state agriculture – a background he possesses, as a fifth-generation Texas rancher.
“But it’s also critically important that we have an agricultural commissioner who can get the job done when it comes to the critical issues facing Texas agriculture,” he said, such as “the availability and management of our water resources.”
“I’ve dealt with some of the water issues that other farmers and ranchers across this state are facing. But I’ve also spent the last decade representing land owners in private property rights and water rights,” he said, “over 10 years experience representing land owners.
“That office has to be a statewide leader on the very issue of making water more available but more importantly, managing that water better.”
Additionally, Opiela said the Texas Department of Agriculture needed to sort out expenses.
“The agency has a budget of $590 million; we also spend 1.9 billion on our school lunch and breakfast programs and an additional half a billion dollars just on administrative overhead,” he said. “We need to reign in the administrative overhead at that agency, return those funds to local schools to provide more nutritious Texas-grown agricultural products to our kids, and manage this agency better.”
Sid Miller said he was the “the conservative candidate” running for office.
“I am pro-life, pro-God, pro-guns, pro-business, pro-family, pro-military, pro-Constitution and anti-Obama,” he began.
An eighth-generation farmer and rancher, Miller said he understands Texas agriculture and personally raises crops, cattle, American Quarter Horses and more. He said he was the “only candidate who's not a lawyer” – but has the dirt in his boots to get the job done, with both a background and degree in agriculture.
“I served as director of the farm bureau, president of my local farmers cooperative,” he said. “I'm a lifetime member of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and a graduate of the Texas A&M and Tarleton State University.”
Miller said he spent the earlier part of his life teaching agriculture and serving as a Future Farmers of America advisor, “so I know the importance of keeping our youth on the family farm.”
Miller served as an elected official for six terms in the Texas House as State Representative, as well as chair for the Agricultural and Livestock Committee – a committee that “has oversight over the Texas Department of Agricultural,” he noted, developing its budget and policies.
McQueen then asked candidates if they supported the rule of capture in the state of Texas, which grants landowners the right to “capture” or own resources on their property – such as groundwater.
“I’ll always support that,” Miller said, “and I have fought that and supported that the last 14 years I’ve served the people of this state.”
Miller said he'd make water his “number one priority,” after the Texas legislature knocked down their water development board from six to three members – “and not one of them represents our rural communities or agriculture.”
“So somebody has to stand in the gap. I intend to do that as ag commissioner,” he said. “I will hold them accountable. The landowner needs to be fully compensated for that, just as in any eminent domain case.”
Opiela also established his stance for support.
“We’re the only state left in the nation that recognizes absolute ownership of land water by the landowner,” Opiela said, but added that the state didn't do enough to protect that right – “because that property right is meaningless if we don’t have water to withdraw.
“We have a patchwork quilt system of groundwater management in the state – 90 different water conservation districts,” he explained, which “do very little to protect that private property.
“We need to manage our aquifers as aquifers, make sure that those landowner rights are protected by locally elected bodies.”
Opiela also said that the department needed to handle court cases over the last few years that questioned the ability to protect these private property rights – a task his legal career with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims prepared him to handle.
“Just last year, we had a court in San Antonio, and then later the Texas Supreme Court, which recognized a regulatory takings claim against a groundwater district. If we’re going to be able to protect rural Texas from having our water drained, we have to make sure that the rules that are written by our groundwater reservation districts actually enhance the property value of landowners,” he said, “so they can defeat a takings claim that would prevent us from being able to defend rural Texas against being drained.”
McQueen then drew attention to the the GO TEXAN marketing program, which represents Texas agri-business on state, national and international levels, and asked candidates what could be done to benefit or improve the program.
Opiela said he didn't believe government could pick winners and losers in a marketplace.
“I believe we should not supplant the efforts of private industry in promoting agricultural products but support those efforts, and I think those need to be the watchwords of how we operate every program that deals with marketing at the Texas Department of Agriculture,” he said.
To give the program a revamp, Opiela said the focus should be on Texas products and the quality of those products, and that the market should expand overseas.
“The proper role of an agency like the Texas Department of Agriculture is to open up those markets internationally. We have a huge trade imbalance with Mexico and Central America right now, whether it be with cattle or whether it be with vegetables,” he said. “We need to make sure that best Made in Texas (products) are used across the world.”
Miller agreed that the GO TEXAN program could use a revamp, noting a need to keep up with the times.
“It needs to catch up with technology, with social media and a lot of things like that that we’re not tapping into.”
To improve this, Miller said he would place someone in charge of social media marketing for Texas agricultural products.
“One of jobs of the Texas Agricultural Commissioner is to be the chief cheerleader of Texas-grown products. And there’s still lots and lots of opportunities in this state.”
In response to a question of what they might abolish in the Texas Department of Agriculture, Opiela said he'd knock out the Texas Agricultural Finance Authority, which provides financial incentives to persons looking to establish or enhance a farm, ranch or agriculture-related business.
“I don’t believe that government should be in the business of interfering with the private markets,” Opiela said, stating that the programs's use of taxpayer-supported funds to buy down interest rates is not a proper function of government. “I don’t think that, especially with the markets the way they are now, that the Texas Department of Agriculture should be in the finance business. We’re in the agriculture business. And I would work with the legislature to eliminate that program.”
Miller agreed and said he would close that program as well, and added he would also look into schools' nutritional programs to look for waste, abuse and fraud, “and if there's any dead wood in there, I'll find it and prune it out.”
Other topics discussed during the forum include the place of the United States Forest Service in the Texas Department of Agriculture, border violence, energy production, and states' rights, among others.
Bart McReynolds, chairman for the Citizens of the Constitution, told attendants the position of Texas Agricultural Commissioner is an important one.
“Texas is the second overall leading agricultural producer in the United States, only second behind California – making this a key position,” McReynolds said.
Other candidates who were invited but declined to speak during the forum included J. Allen Carnes, Joe Cotton and Tommy Merritt. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, there will be a runoff election May 27.
The forum was broadcast live on KNET 1450 AM / 95.7 FM and online at youreasttexas.com.