Wednesday, January 27, 2010

TDA Launches Fuel Quality Program

On Tuesday I announced the Texas Department of Agriculture is strengthening consumer protection by launching a new statewide fuel quality program targeting contaminated fuel. Until now, there has not been a state agency in Texas with the authority to protect drivers from receiving tainted fuel. You can view video of the announcement below and also read coverage from the Houston Chronicle.

State shines light on gasoline quality

By SHARON HONG Copyright 2010 Houston Chronicle
Jan. 26, 2010

State officials watched as a fuel inspector pumped a sample of gasoline from a Houston Shell station into a jar, sloshed the pale yellow liquid around and declared it clean Tuesday, kicking off a program to check for contaminated fuel.

The program is a result of legislation that took effect Jan. 1, expanding the Texas Department of Agriculture's regulatory authority to include testing of fuel quality. Before, there was no designated state agency authorized to protect drivers from contaminated fuel from the pump.

“This problem was brought to our attention locally over a year ago when a vendor was watering down their gas,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who sponsored the bill. “We cannot tolerate someone who will take a short cut. ... I'm excited that the state of Texas responded to a consumer need.”

In 2009 the Agriculture Department, which also regulates accuracy of readings on quantities pumped and octane levels, received 166 consumer complaints about fuel quality.

But additional complaints may have gone to other agencies.

“That's the thing. We don't know exactly how many complaints there were, because before the bill consumers didn't really know who to call,” said Debbie Hastings of the Texas Oil and Gas Association, an industry group that supported the bill. “This centralizes the oversight of this process.”

Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, who kicked off the testing program with the demonstration at the Shell station on Westheimer, said his office will conduct 5,000 fuel quality tests this year. The program will include routine monitoring as well as response to complaints.

The legislation authorizes the department to assess fines up to $5,000 per violation per day, and to stop sales by noncompliant vendors — which Staples suggested would be strong disincentives for those tempted to tamper.

“I'm proud that Texas demands high standards,” he said. “And we already have a high rate of compliance — 93  percent for fuel quantity and 96 percent for octane levels.”

“When Texas drivers top off their tanks, they can have the assurance that the fuel quality they're paying for is the fuel quality they get,” Staples said.

The program will be funded by fees charged fuel retailers, distributors, jobbers, suppliers and wholesalers.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Help Haiti

The devastation in Haiti is heart wrenching beyond description. Already the poorest country in the western hemisphere, the nation was plummeted last week into the deepest depths of chaos and destruction by an unforgiving earthquake and its powerful aftershocks.

The death toll, currently at about 75,000, continues to rise. The 3 million who survived the 7.0 quake are far from safe, as they struggle for the basic necessities of life – water, food and shelter. The sobering images we see on the news don’t begin to capture the cries for help, the pain of loss and the gripping fear of despair.

In an effort to help the people of Haiti, I ask all Texans who can to consider donating time, money, medicine, food and other resources so desperately needed by struggling survivors. No donation is too small and no good intentions should stall or idle.

Please give what you can today so that the people of Haiti might survive tomorrow. The American Red Cross is a great place to start to help Haiti. Thank you and God bless.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Fort Worth Reverend Leads by Example

Last week, while I was in Fort Worth awarding home-delivered meal agencies across North Texas more than $2 million to help feed hungry, homebound Texans, I met Reverend Floyd Kinser.

Rev. Kinser was the pastor of one of 11 churches that helped establish Meals on Wheels, Inc. of Tarrant County. This group of churches literally did it all when the home-delivered meal agency opened – they cooked food, answered phones and delivered meals.

Having volunteered 37 years with the agency, Rev. Kinser is the longest-serving volunteer, both as a board member and as a volunteer driver. He opens every board meeting with a prayer, and staff says his faith helps the home-delivered meal program succeed. Although now in his 80s, Rev. Kinser still delivers meals once a week. Thanks, Rev. Kinser, for your vision that is still positively influencing the lives of Texans today.

Monday, January 18, 2010

MLK’s dream lives on

Today we celebrate the legacy of one of history’s greatest humanitarians and are reminded that diversity and equal opportunity make the world a better place.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned a dream in which all are free to pursue lives of happiness and prosperity. He spoke of a world in which humankind was blind to prejudice and opposed to unjust persecution. He spoke of unity, civility and humility.

Take notice of your fellow man today. Is he or she so much different than you? Don’t we all want peace for our families? Don’t we all have talents and compassion? Don’t we all have dreams?

We are a better people when we share and celebrate our strengths, respect our faiths and reach out to one another. Dr. King held these truths to be self-evident and if we look at the world through honest eyes, his vision is shared by us all.

With all that we face in the 21st century, Dr. King’s powerful words ring true today as much as they did when he spoke them 46 years ago.

“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

Today and always, let’s honor through our actions the dream of Dr. King.

Friday, January 15, 2010

A visit from the future leaders of Texas agriculture

Take a look below at the picture of the 2009-2010 Texas FFA officers. These young men and women represent hope and opportunity for Texas agriculture. They were in Austin recently and we had the chance to discuss their futures, the future of Texas and the future of Texas agriculture.

L-R front row: Allison Grainger, State President, Brenham FFA; Commissioner Staples; Tyler Brandfield, Boerne FFA; Katie Heinrich, Lubbock-Cooper FFA; Layton Norwood, Prairiland FFA and Miles Vann, Wellman-Union FFA. Back row: Jeremiah Miller, S&S Consolidated FFA; Kody Kale, Falls City FFA; Aron Hutchins, Stephenville FFA; Dakotah Williams, Glen Rose FFA and Kalen McLaurin; Big Sandy FFA.

While not all of these young leaders will go into a career field directly tied to agriculture, each will be a lifetime ambassador for agriculture. Each will be able to tell the story of the perseverance, tenacity and, yes, stubbornness required of every farmer and rancher who works daily to provide us with the most reliable, safest and most affordable food supply in the world.

If you don't already, please take time to volunteer to help the FFA program or agriculture department at your high school, or call your county extension agent and ask how you can help with your local 4-H clubs. Your future literally depends on it.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Grants Awarded to Home-Deliverd Meal Agencies to Feed Hungry Texans

Today I am meeting with representatives from home-delivered meal agencies in Central and North Texas. More importantly, I am proudly awarding these organizations with critical funding so they can continue their incredibly important job of helping elderly and homebound Texans maintain their independence. By delivering meals to our neighbors in need, these food-service organizations can help meet the nutritional needs of those who otherwise might go hungry or be forced to seek care outside their homes.

By nourishing our homebound neighbors, Texas taxpayers save about $30,000 in nursing home expenses per individual served. It’s a win-win situation, and it’s worthy of our support. If you’d like to help our homebound neighbors and the great state of Texas, I would encourage you to volunteer or donate to a home-delivered meal agency in your community.

TDA is awarding almost 200 grants, totaling $9.5 million to home-delivered meal providers across Texas who served over 13 million meals statewide last year. Over the three-year life of this program, TDA has awarded nearly $30 million to these organizations.

I appreciate all that these organizations do for Texans, and I am proud to support such an honorable and necessary initiative.

Click here to see the press release about today's events.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Rural Health Care Challenges

As we begin this new year and decade, we welcome the promise of change for the better. Rural Texas, in particular, is faced with many unique challenges, especially in the field of health care. I view these challenges as opportunities to unleash the creativity and ingenuity that built Texas into the powerhouse it is today.

The article below outlines the difficulties facing rural Texans when it comes to obtaining and maintaining needed health care. Not only is access to quality care essential to the quality of life, but also it is vital to the economic health of vast regions of the Lone Star State. When you stop to consider that rural Texas makes up 80 percent of our state’s landmass, you can better appreciate the scope of concern.

Unfortunately, the healthcare plan our federal government is proposing is both tremendously costly and likely to lower the quality of adequate care. Texas needs to take a hard look at our current health care resources and find ways to expand them as we look to the future. This subject has been given a good bit of attention in the past, but its importance cannot be overstated. When it comes to rural health care, there is always room for exploring new approaches and maximizing technology to best serve those who work so hard to give us the most abundant and affordable food and fiber supply in the world.

No Country For Health Care, Part 3: The Shrinking Rural Ranks
by Emily Ramshaw
January 6, 2010

AUSTIN — Politically speaking, it’s no time to be an advocate for rural health care.

In the last House Speaker’s race and on the state’s health care regulatory boards, rural lawmakers say they’ve been outnumbered and under-represented. The looming redistricting battle will only shrink their ranks.

They’re finding it more and more difficult to teach an increasingly urban Legislature about the crisis in rural health care.

“Every seat we lose, that’s one more person we have to convince,” said State Rep. Joe Heflin, D-Crosbyton, whose 15,000-square-mile Panhandle district includes six small rural hospitals and one county with no medical care at all. “It’s just a giant uphill battle.”

Rural lawmakers felt safe with former House Speaker Pete Laney, whose Panhandle district was undeniably rural. Laney’s successor, former House Speaker Tom Craddick, was seen as an ally too: His Midland district is partly rural, and he appointed rural lawmakers to key committee posts.

But with last session’s election of San Antonio Rep. Joe Straus as Speaker, a big city lawmaker now holds the House’s top post. And urban House members replaced many rural ones as committee chairs, a hit to rural lawmakers’ cumulative influence.

Straus' staffers say though he's from an urban district, he’s committed to strengthening health care delivery statewide. In his interim charges, he asked the House Committee on County Affairs to compare urban and rural health delivery models — and to make recommendations for reducing disparities.

"Speaker Straus listens to and is respectful of the views and concerns of all House members," spokeswoman Tracy Young said.

But Straus’ commitment doesn’t necessarily change the political landscape for rural lawmakers.

Under Craddick, rural lawmakers chaired the House State Affairs and Appropriations committees, two of the most powerful legislative posts. Now, lobbyists for rural Texas say the most influential advocate they have left is Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, who represents much of the Panhandle and chairs the Senate State Affairs committee.

They expect to lose even more clout next year, when lawmakers convene and begin redistricting. Health care experts estimate rural Texas will lose up to five Legislative seats — three or four in the House and one in the Senate. This means legislation improving rural health care will fall on fewer sympathetic ears, and that measures threatening rural health care will take more work to defeat.

Meanwhile, advocates for rural health care say they’ve felt besieged by the state’s medical regulatory boards, which have considered rule changes that are unworkable in rural clinics and hospitals.

“The difference between urban and rural medicine is the difference between an NFL football team and a six-man high school team — one that’s playing offense, defense, and playing in the band at halftime,” said Don McBeath, director of advocacy for the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals. “Nobody’s against higher standards of care. But we have to make sure we don’t inadvertently put so much burden on the rural providers that they can’t survive.”

Late last year, the Texas Medical Board considered requiring all health care professionals using videoconferencing to treat patients to be licensed as a doctor, a physician assistant or an advanced practice nurse — eliminating rural paramedics and many lower level nurses from the equation. Then the Texas State Board of Pharmacy considered requiring pharmacy technicians to be overseen by licensed pharmacists at all times, either in person, or via videoconferencing.

In both cases, the measures were designed to ensure patients were receiving professional, standardized care, regardless of whether they lived in urban or rural communities. The reality, health care experts say, is that these new rules would’ve restricted access to what little medical care exists in rural Texas. In some counties, EMTs and entry-level nurses are the only health care professionals available. Banning them from explaining a patient’s symptoms to a doctor over videoconferencing makes little sense to rural Texans. And many Texas communities are lucky to even have a part-time pharmacy technician — let alone a pharmacist to oversee that technician. Requiring them to be monitored by a pharmacist at all times is completely unrealistic, these experts say.

Both boards put the rule changes off for further study, following immediate outrage from rural health care providers.

“You scratch your head, because they say they want to promote health care in rural Texas,” Heflin said. “But then they’re doing everything they can to eliminate it.”

Monday, January 4, 2010

A Texan making a difference

Last year I had the chance to speak to a class at Emanuel University in Romania with a group led by Stan Ray, VP for Marketing and Corporate Relations at Farm Credit Bank of Texas. Stan has created the Emanuel Agriculture Development Corporation and is working toward establishing an agribusiness program at Emanuel University that will benefit Texas businesses and Romanian students.

Romania is still recovering from nearly 50 years of communist rule. Developing a strong economy for this Eastern European nation is good insurance the country never slips back toward a communist model of government.

Stan recently began a partnership with Baylor University that is sure to benefit the Emanuel Agriculture Development Corporation. Through a new formal 3-hour (independent study) class in the marketing department, a professor and a senior level MBA student will work on developing a strategic plan for the corporation.

Congratulations to Stan Ray and Baylor University for providing much needed leadership and stability to a very important part of the world. It is good to see Texans play such a key role in worldwide agricultural development, peace and strength. We all benefit when democracy takes a step forward.