SHORTLY AFTER 11:00, the Senate was called to order by Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby. The invocation was given. The clerk called the roll. In accepting the excused absence of Senator Frank Tejeda of San Antonio, Hobby casually announced that the Senator was in Nicaragua, having been chosen as part of the American team to observe the recent election there. The election,. of course, was being held in El Salvador, but nobody stirred, nor corrected Hobby, nor seemed to object to Tejeda’s announced presence in Nicaragua. The looming item on the intent calendar was Senate Bill 489, carried by Senator Tati Santiesteban, Democrat of El Paso. This was the bill that gives the Texas Department of Agriculture a new twelve-year lease on life and retains an elected agriculture commissioner. The bill was not expected to encounter trouble in the Senate, which has a 23-8 Democratic majority. Hightower had launched his defense of the agency in a Senate committee on March 8, bringing in Democratic powerhouse John White, who served as Texas Commissioner of Agriculture for 27 years, to speak in favor of an elected position. Hightower began by telling the committee, “I promise all of my detractors, all who want to get at me, I will not hang on for 27 years.” Committee chair Santiesteban commented that politics seldom offers such permanent employment. “Indeed,” said Hightower. “Some days you think you’re a peacock, the next day you’re a featherduster, Mr. Chairman. I understand the politics of that.” But after that brief philosophical moment, Hightower delivered ‘a no-nonsense defense. “Rather than me droning on about the details of the bill,” he told the committee, “I really want to go to the nub of what I think is at work around SB 489. If this were simply a matter of good government or another agency undergoing normal Sunset Review, we could all speak a little bureaucratese, rest easy and adjourn over to Scholz Garden. But that’s not really what’s afoot, here in this bill. This is a political attack.” The attack, Hightower said, was led and orchestrated by the chemical lobby, and was coming on two fronts: one, to get rid of the ag commissioner as an elected official and, two, to transfer authority for regulating pesticides to an independent appointed commission. Hightower noted that the Sunset Advisory Commission \(which is made up of four Senators, four Representatives, and two rejected both those proposals in their review process. It became apparent soon enough that Santiesteban’s Senate committee had no interest in messing with the Ag Department, either. Though the committee has three Republicans and Bill Sims \(who serves as the voice of the Farm Bureau in favorably by a vote of 9-0. Its passage through the full Senate was just as smooth. The bill was brought up for consideration on a 24-5 vote \(this is essentially the vote on the bill; it passed four Republicans \(Bivins of Amarillo, Krier of San Antonio, Leedom of. Dallas, and Sims of San Angelo. Sims and Ratliff also teamed up to try to restrict the Ag Department’s authority to levy fines in cases of pesticide violations. “We in agriculture do not feel it’s fair to have this kind of administrative penalty,” Sims argued. “We don’t quite understand why it needs to be done.” But his amendment was rejected 1613. There was no discussion of making the agriculture commissioner an appointed official. That discussion would come later, when the bill reached the House. “Some days you think you’re a peacock; the next day you’re a feather duster.” IHAD EXPECTED to spend the afternoon in the House State Affairs Commit tee, to see if the consumer lobbyists would give Rep. Curtis Seidlits a drubbing. But the committee was aswarm with lawyers and the topic was How To Gig the State Bar This Week and youcan read about that in the Texas Lawyer; I got out fast. It seemed that it would be an interesting exercise, while it was still National Agriculture Day, to put the question of the fate of the Texas Department of Agriculture to a few Republicans. Would they try to put a high-minded gloss on a political movement that looks suspiciously like a low and calculated attempt to rough up one politiDemocrat? Indeed they would. As the Republicans would have it, they are thinking seriously of ways to bring better representation to farmers. Here is how Rep. Terral Smith, the well-regarded, sometimes moderate Austin Republican, explained it: “I’m staying open on the issue,” he began. “The argument, and I think it is a legitimate argument made by the farmers, is that the Agriculture Commission was created to be an advocate for farmers, that was its purpose. And over the years, and as the urban people outnumbered the farming people, it has turned into a consumer advocate office.” He added, “And that’s O.K. There’s nothing wrong with a consumer advocate office. But that’s not what the purpose of the Agriculture Commission was to be in the first place. The farmers are arguing that the only way in today’s state that they can actually have an advocate is for him to be appointed. Because if he’s elected, he’s gonna be elected by urban people.” Smith said the issue has been discussed in some meetings with House Republicans and the governor’s office, but that it is not clear to him what the governor is going to do. I asked if he was afraid the Republicans would run the risk of looking as if they want to abolish an elected office just because they didn’t like the officeholder. “I think it could end up making a hero out of Jim Hightower, a martyr. And I think you have to be very careful with that,” he said. “He is a very popular, charismatic type guy. And he’s very good at articulating his position, and I’m sure he could turn this thing around to his advantage tremendously. And that’s a shame in a way. And it cuts both ways. I mean, you’re right. We probably wouldn’t be talking about it if it wasn’t for Jim Hightower. And it probably wouldn’t be as great a political risk if it wasn’t Jim Hightower. So his personality makes it , both.” Rep. Dick . Waterfield is a straightshooting Republican from Canadian. He represents the top half of the Panhandle and is himself involved in running a feedlot in his district. In an interview in his office that was overseen by the head of a mounted ten-point buck, Waterfield said he favored creating an appointed agriculture commission that hires a commissioner. Although he said he and Hightower get along fine, he was disappointed with Hightower’s role in the beef hormone trade flap. “We didn’t get strong support,” he said. In his view, Hightower should have stood up and said “There’s nothing wrong with the hormones.” Waterfield said he is not part of a “Get Hightower” move, though he admits that such a move is underway. “That’s not what I’m talking about,” he said. His worry is that people who are not “ag-oriented” are voting for agriculture commissioner. “I’ve got some problems with a person in Houston not really knowing what’s good for agriculture,” he said. “Let’s get farmers represented. Right now we don’t have them represented.” But he admitted, also, that the issue would not be so explosive without the Hightower factor. “If Hightower were not so controversial, probably you would not see this I’m not naive,” he said. “Had he continued to run for Senate and if [deputy commissioner] Mike. Moeller were running for Ag Commissioner, this probably wouldn’t be going on.” “You’ve got to understand, Hightower really hasn’t endeared himself to many people around here,” he continued. “Jim’s a populist. That’s what he calls himself. And I don’t know how many populists you have out there in the House.” THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5
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