Thursday, February 26, 2009

Working to Protect Texas Consumers at the Gas Pump

One of my top priorities this Legislative Session is to increase consumer protection at the fuel pump. I want to make sure Texas drivers get what they pay for when they are filling up their gas tanks.

Check out the story KEYE-TV, the CBS affiliate in Austin, recently aired on our plan to ensure fairness and equity in the marketplace. Click photo to watch:

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

National Association of State Departments of Agriculture Meeting Report

While I would have much rather been in Texas last week, I spent the week with my colleagues of commissioners, secretaries and directors of agriculture from all 50 states for the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) mid year meeting.

Both Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson addressed our group together as a panel. Seeing EPA and USDA speaking together might have caused anxiety for some, however, we know many issues vital to American agriculture and our environment will be decided in the next few years and it is essential agriculture have a seat at the environmental policy table.

In his remarks, Secretary Vilsack stated he and President Obama would focus on the following priorities that will positively impact agriculture and our country as a whole:
· Improving income opportunity for agricultural producers
· Advancing more nutritious food
· Focusing on new energy opportunities

I look forward to working with our D.C. representatives on these and many more issues, but it sure feels good to be back home in Texas.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Senate Finance Committee Testimony

Wednesday, I testified before the Senate Finance Committee and discussed the Texas Department of Agriculture’s 2010-2011 budget request. TDA has taken on many additional responsibilities over the past few years and we hope to improve upon these services.

After holding discussions with producers, agribusinesses and professionals all across the state, we identified several exceptional items we believe need additional resources to better serve and protect all Texans.

TDA’s four main priorities are Agricultural Biosecurity, Consumer Protection, Economic Development and Healthy Lifestyles. I look forward to working with our dedicated members in the House and Senate as they draft a budget that ensures Texans receive necessary and efficient services that maximize the investment of state dollars.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What the Economic Stimulus Means to Texas

Whether you are in favor of the federal stimulus package or against it, Congress has acted and President Obama has signed the economic stimulus bill into law.

As a result, Texas is poised to receive more than $16 million for the Texas Department of Agriculture’s nutrition and food distribution programs. Just over $8 million will help schools across Texas buy better cooking equipment, enabling them to prepare healthier meals, and to purchase additional refrigeration to hold more fresh produce, in turn helping TDA with its mission to curb childhood obesity.

Another $8 million or so will go to the Texas Commodity Assistance Program – a critical program that provides USDA commodities, such as fruits and vegetables, to underprivileged individuals through food banks and other emergency food services. This relief is coming at a time when food banks are seeing a heavier demand than usual.

The bottom line is the Texas economy is in much better shape than that of most states in the U.S. Still, no Texan is immune to the challenges our economy faces. That’s why TDA is working with agribusinesses, producers, lawmakers and other stakeholders to ensure the Texas agriculture industry is doing its part to keep Texas’ economy strong.

Drought Relief for Texas Farmers and Ranchers

I was able to go to East Texas this weekend and spend a little time at the farm with my father – I can’t think of a better way to spend the weekend. Newborn calves were bouncing around the pasture, and the cows were enjoying the little bit of clover, vetch and other winter grasses that have sprouted. The green stuff was a welcomed sight, as the hay supplies are getting pretty thin. It appears we have had a little rain, but much more is needed.

Unfortunately, many ranchers have been transporting hay for some time because of the drought and short supplies. I recently wrote a letter to Governor Perry asking for a waiver on height and load restrictions for transporting hay, and in response, he issued an order to the Texas Department of Transportation that waives those transportation restrictions for a defined period.

Producers needing more information about drought relief can find resources through the Texas Department of Agriculture’s Disaster Resource Information Packet, which includes contact information for assistance with loans, water/irrigation, insurance and other things. TDA’s Hay Hotline is also a great resource for ranchers in need of hay and forage.

Hopefully spring will bring the rain we need to nourish our crops and livestock. If not, it is important to remember that Texas farmers and ranchers are recognized far and wide for their grit and generosity.

Friday, February 13, 2009

High Ground of Texas Attracts Businesses and Expansion

I just returned from a trade mission with The High Ground of Texas to the World Ag Expo in Tulare, California. The High Ground is a regional partnership stretching from the Panhandle through the Southern Plains and to the Permian Basin. They are a great group that understands the value of partnerships and making agricultural enterprises aware of the benefits of doing business in Texas.

As a result of The High Ground’s efforts, numerous businesses have relocated to the northern region of our state. In fact, several dairy farms are located in the Panhandle, and Hilmar Cheese is now in Dalhart because of their successful efforts. Hilmar has more than 170 employees at their Texas facility, and the group is hopeful for continued expansion.

Low taxes, affordable land and good work ethic are factors bringing jobs to Texas. From October 2007 to October 2008, the U.S. lost over half a million net jobs while Texas created a quarter of a million net new jobs. This means jobs for our children and opportunities for Texans. Congratulations to The High Ground and to all of our economic development professionals competing to attract jobs to Texas.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Part Two of Guest Blog: 1,500 Miles - 21 Communities - 5 Days

The following is part two of the guest blog compiled by TDA's Agribusiness and Rural Economic Development Specialist Jack Stallings while touring West Texas as part of the “Partners for Progress” Rural Economic Development Roundtable Discussions. Click HERE to read part one.

Day Four – Sanderson, Iraan & Fort Stockton

After a gallon of coffee and another 4 a.m. start, we once again saw the sun rising above the West Texas mountains. We are on our way to the Cactus Capital of Texas, a place that even Judge Roy Bean found too wild to live: Sanderson, in Terrell County.

We met in the historic Terrell County Court House with a large group of community and business leaders.
As we have found with many of these rural communities, housing is a priority, followed by water and electric infrastructure. As a result of our meeting, County Judge Leo Smith hopes to utilize some of the federal USDA loans we mentioned. In addition, we have planned follow-up meetings to help local entrepreneurs develop their ideas.

Iraan, former home to V.T. Hamlin, creator of the comic strip Alley Oop, was next on our agenda. In the center of the Permian Basin and Texas oil and gas fields, Iraan is now the location of one largest wind farms in the state.

It may come as no surprise that Iraan also has housing issues. A new water storage tank, broadband and the repair and replacement of existing gas lines are also high on the list.

While community leaders displayed interest in the GO TEXAN Certified Retirement Community Progam, Iraan’s Economic Development Corporation director expressed her appreciation for receiving funding through the GO TEXAN Rural Community Downtown Beautification Grant. City officials look forward to planting brightly colored flowers in the flower boxes that now line the town square.

In Fort Stockton, we were met by Paisano Pete, the biggest roadrunner in the country. Paisano is Spanish for roadrunner.

Fort Stockton, a U.S. Army Fort, was established on the banks of Comanche Springs in 1858, allowing the town to become a thriving agricultural center. Even today, Fort Stockton produces grapes, pecans and alfalfa, and is home to the largest winery in Texas – Mesa Vineyards.

On the top of Fort Stockton’s list is the South Orient Railroad Rehabilitation project. This line runs from Fort Worth to Presidio and would provide a tremendous economic boost for points along the line and the entire state of Texas.

Additional issues are housing, gas, sewer and water. Fort Stockton leader also expressed concern over road deterioration, lack of housing for prison staff and transmission lines to support the rapidly growing solar and wind renewable energy projects.

Day Five – Monahans & Pecos

We started with a sunrise over Pecos County (great name for a country song) and took a short ride to Monahans, home of the Million Barrel Museum named for a million barrel elliptical crude oil storage tank built in 1928. Monahans is also known for Sandhills State Park, a popular destination for sand surfing, dune buggy rides, family picnics and much more.

Our first order of business was the consumption of several unbelievably delicious homemade cinnamon rolls.

Monahans has many housing issues, some of which deal with new home construction, elderly home rehabilitation and low-income housing. The community is also focusing on beautification and removing abandoned, dilapidated homes and buildings.

Community leaders are interested in the development of a multi–purpose recreational facility to host sports venues and community events.

The highlight of our trip to Monahans was a visit to its new renewable energy project.
The progressive town has installed two windmills to power its waste treatment facility.

It was a short trip down I-20 to the town of Pecos for our last meeting in the “Partners for Progress” Far West Texas Economic Development Round Table discussions.

Pecos, the site of the world’s first rodeo in 1883 and the renowned Pecos cantaloupe, is now a thriving hub for the oil and gas industry.

Issues expressed by Pecos leaders were again, housing and infrastructure. New issues, not discussed in previous meetings, included the development of a regional ground water district, the addition of a financial training curriculum in high schools and the development of additional value-added processing for crops grown it the region.

We then headed home after another successful round of meetings.

It was a great pleasure meeting with all the communities in far west Texas. The Partners for Progress series has helped us develop a great network and a long list of issues and concerns that we hope to address in the upcoming West Texas Economic Development Summit scheduled for late September 2009.

I would like to express my thanks to Cynthia Delgado of the Governors Office of Economic Development and John Perkins of USDA Rural Development who were both instrumental in making this project a success.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Coming Soon to TV Near You

Thanks to the help of C.D. Fulkes Middle School students, Principal Nancy Guerrero and Round Rock Independent School District Superintendent Jesus Chavez, all Texas kids will soon be reminded of the importance of eating a healthy breakfast at school.

We filmed a public service announcement yesterday to promote the benefits of eating breakfast and adopting the 3Es of Healthy Living – Education, Exercise and Eating Right. To help us with this message, we borrowed the characters Mr. Breakfast & YoGirl from the School Nutrition Association.

We will also display these characters in the cafeteria where our children can see them and hear a reinforced message that will result in healthy eating and healthy lifestyles. We are excited about fighting the childhood epidemic facing Texas and hope you will join us in this effort.

Guest Blog: 1,500 Miles - 21 Communities - 5 Days

While Wall Street continues to ride an economic rollercoaster, the Texas Department of Agriculture is working hard to make sure main streets all across west Texas have a roadmap for success by hosting economic development roundtable meetings in rural communities across the region. “Partners for Progress” Rural Economic Development Roundtable Discussions is a partnership of the Governors Office of Economic Development, United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development and the Texas Department of Agriculture Rural Economic Development Division.

The roundtable meetings bring together local community and business leaders to discuss local and regional business and economic issues; identify areas of need and opportunities; and learn about resources that can help them.

Agribusiness and Rural Economic Development Specialist Jack Stallings teamed up with Cynthia Delgado from the Office of the Governor and John Perkins with the U. S. Department of Agriculture for the road tour. I am happy to present their “guest blog” of their tour of West Texas:
1,500 Miles - 21 Communities - 5 Days


It began in Clint, Texas as we watched the sun come up over one of the smallest town halls in the state. A converted scale house at an abandoned cotton gin now serves as Mayor Dale Reinhardt’s command center for one of the smallest, but growing communities in El Paso County.

Our partnership met a diverse group of community leaders and business people who shared Clint’s needs, problems and goals for future growth and job creation. Among the needs discussed were basic infrastructure, such as water and sewer, which would provide the foundation for new businesses to locate and existing businesses to expand.

Our next stop was the Culberson County Courthouse, the only adobe courthouse within the great state of Texas, perhaps even in the United States! We met with representatives from the four communities in the county: Sierra Blanca, Dell City, Fort Hancock and Esperanza. We discussed the issues of basic infrastructure, animal control and lack of housing for border patrol officers and prison employees.

Recent attacks on domestic animals by wild dogs and mountain lions are challenging local law enforcement, creating an immediate need for an animal control officer.

The marquee at the Van Horn community center welcomed us to the crossroads of Texas, gateway to the Texas Mountain Trail and two national parks: Guadalupe and Big Bend.

After an authentic Mexican lunch at Toni’s, we sat down with the Economic Development Corporation and representatives from the Culberson County Hospital District, Culberson County-Allamore Independent School District, local businesses and the city. Community concerns centered around lack of housing, solid waste disposal and the need for a pharmacy.

DAY TWO: Marfa, Presidio & Terlingua

We got an early start (4:30 am!) on day two as we headed to Marfa, home of the mysterious Marfa Lights.

Traveling down I-10 we w
itnessed a beautiful sunrise over the Quitman Mountains.

After arriving in Marfa and visiting the famous Paisano Hotel where James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson stayed during the filming of “Giant,” we headed to Marfa City Hall to meet with a large group of community leaders and business folks.

Marfa’s issues mirrored those of other rural communities, being basic infrastructure and housing. In addition, they have an interest in increasing tourism and identifying additional entrepreneurial opportunities to foster area employment.

After leaving Marfa, we headed south toward the border and one of the oldest, continuously inhabited areas in North America and the site of the first Texas Christmas Mass held in 1683: Presidio.

We arrived at the Presidio Activity Center and found a unified crowd of civic-minded citizens with a large array of issues and goals to pursue for the betterment of their city. Lorenzo Reyes, CEO of the Upper Rio Grande Workforce Solutions joined us in Presidio.

The issues Presidio city officials were most concerned with included equipping the new clinic, and getting assistance with the planned upgrade of the electric transmission lines to the city. The rehabilitation of the South Orient Rail Line, which could provide tremendous economic stimulus for the area and the state, was also discussed. Exploring the paths of pioneers, we drove east along the Rio Grande on 170 (one of the most scenic drives in the United States) in route to Terlingua in Big Bend National Park.

We were forced to take dirt road detours due to recent flooding which not only damaged many roads, but also caused considerable destruction in Presidio.

The Ghost Town of Terlingua now derives its livelihood from tourism, instead of mining. According to the Texas Mountain Travel guide, Terlingua’s residents are a new generation of entrepreneurs, river guides, urban refugees and hardy retirees. Given its isolated geographic location, Terlingua’s issues include access to health care, preventative medicine, governmental and social services.

A pleasant highlight was when the owner of Terlingua’s Whitson Chile expressed her appreciation for the assistance she received through TDA’s GO TEXAN program. With the GO TEXAN program, Whitson Chile has been able to expand both domestically and internationally.

DAY THREE – Alpine & Fort Davis

Located in a valley between the Davis, Glass and Del Norte Mountains, Alpine boasts the best climate in Texas, with warm and sunny winter days and cool summer nights. A large group of business and community leaders discussed issues with the greatest impact on the economic growth and health of Alpine. A shortage of workers in the vocational/tech fields, affordable housing and a decline in tourism dollars were among the issues mentioned.

Named after Secretary of War, James Davis, Fort Davis was established to protect the trade route along the Overland Trail, between St Louis and California. It is surrounded by the natural beauty of the Davis Mountains and is home to a host of artisans and merchants. Since tourism is a large portion of Fort Davis’ economy it was, of course, one of several areas of concern.

Operating on limited dollars, Fort Davis’ Volunteer Fire Department is in need of funds to build a new fire rescue training facility. Currently, the only facility remotely close is Texas A&M University.

To be Continued...

Partners for Progress will hit the road again later this week , visiting the communities of Sanderson, Iraan, Fort Stockton, Monahans and Pecos. For more information about Partners for Progress, contact Jack Stallings at (915) 859-3943.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Meetings with Fellow Texans on Legislative Priorities

Along with several other meetings today, Janet and I met with representatives from the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, City of Palestine, Cedar Creek Lake Area and the Texas Wildlife Association. These folks have taken the time to travel to Austin to ensure their legislators understand their priorities for Texas, for their communities and for their organizations.

The good news is Texas is in much better shape than our sister states, and to stay ahead of the curve, Texas is identifying cuts of 2.5 percent in the remainder of the 2009 general revenue state budget.

For the Texas Department of Agriculture, this equates to about $1.6 million, but it adds up to about $500 million statewide. Taxpayers can rest assured, here at TDA, we will continue our core mission of service and find efficiencies and savings to produce a balanced budget.

Texas families are having to make decisions with limited resources. Texas government must do the same.

$10 Million Given to Texans Feeding Texans Grant Program

Texans are a proud bunch. And, the truth is, we have much to be proud of.

We can surely be proud of the efforts of our home-delivered meal agencies. These organizations have been instrumental in helping Texans who have spent their lives working, but have reached a point where they need a little help to maintain their independence. Providing them with meals to enjoy in their homes allows our seniors and homebound neighbors the freedom to live with comfort and dignity.

Thanks to the Texas Legislature, almost 200 home-delivered meal providers have received $10 million through the Texans Feeding Texans: Home-Delivered Meal Program. The Texas Department of Agriculture is proud to administer this program, which has assisted home-delivered meal agencies in providing a much-needed service to homebound elderly and disabled Texans.

We are happy to do our part, and would also encourage you to consider offering a helping hand to those who need it now. Contact your local home-delivered meal provider to find out how you can help.