a rematch of the one that Hightower won against the chemical lobby in 1985. At that time the commissioner had just put into place new pesticide regulations that were, in fact, rather mild; they merely required that farmers not spray their fields while farmworkers are in them and that they hold their workers out of the fields for certain periods of time after certain chemicals were used. But the agribusiness establishment saw red. It became their considered opinion that pesticides ought to be regulated by someone else. In the 69th session, Hightower’s opponents sought to create a three-member board to regulate pesticides and came within a few votes in the House of doing it. This session the same idea came forth, except now a six-member board was preferred by the Get Hightower crowd. THE DEBATE took place in the House on May 10, when the bill reauthorizing the TDA under the state’s “sunset” law came up for discussion. Hightower’s opponents first made a stab at doing away with the elected position of agriculture commissioner in favor of a commission made up of 15 members elected from regions around the state. Rep. Warren Chisum, a conservative Democrat from Pampa, proposed in an amendment that the regions would be the same ones from which the members of the state board of education are elected. Rep. Dudley Harrison, DSanderson, maintained that on the education board only two members come from rural areas. He asked Chisum how he expected to improve the representation of rural people on the agriculture board when “people from the food and fiber districts don’t have a Chinaman’s chance of getting someone elected to this board.” Chisum ended up admitting that most members of the board of education are from metropolitan areas and his amendment was shot down 8343. Then came the pesticide debate. Rep. Rick Perry, a conservative Democrat from Haskell, stood up and began, “Members, this amendment is going to make a change in the way that we look at pesticides in this state, and I think it will do nothing except make for a better future of Texas.” He proposed the creation of an “Agricultural Resources Protection Authority” a board made up of five designated agricultural experts presided over by the ag commissioner. Harrison asked Perry if the department of agriculture has not been effective with pesticide regulation under the current system. Perry soft-pedaled his motivations: “I’m not saying that the department has not been effective. I’m trying to help the department have a better group of people together.” But Austin Rep. Lena Guerrero, the lead sponsor of the ag department sunset bill, challenged Perry. “This amendment `gets’ Jim Hightower,” she told the House. “This amendment, worse than that, ‘gets’ the people of Texas.” Guerrero continued, “You get to go home, if you vote for this amendment, and tell the people of Texas: `I’ve got good news for you and I’ve got bad news for you. The good news is, you get to elect the commissioner of agriculture. The bad news is, he doesn’t have any power.’ ” Several others spoke against Perry’s amendment and Harrison rested the case by saying, “Mr. Speaker and members, if it ain’t broke, why break it?” But Hightower and his defenders lost the vote 88-55. Then the TDA bill passed as amended by a 13015 vote. In the hall behind the House chamber, Hightower emerged from Speaker pro tem Hugo Berlanga’s office and was surrounded by more than a dozen reporters. “I said from the start that this was a campaign against the Department of Agriculture that was led by the chemical lobby,” Hightower said. “This now certifies it. When the governor finally stood up and said what it was he wanted, when the interests finally came forward on the floor of the House, it was the chemical interests that came forward, not the farm interests. This is an amendment that hurts farmers. It helps chemical companies.” Why did Hightower lose the vote? Surely some members had been buffaloed by the chemical lobby. But in 1985 Hightower got nearly 20 additional people to stand up against the lobby than he got in 1989. Rep. Juan Hinojosa, the McAllen Democrat who served this session as chair of the Mexican American caucus, explains the difference in terms of tactics in the House. Four years ago, the Mexican American caucus took the lead, he said. This time the fight was directed by Hightower’s staff. He recalls working the floor in 1985 with Rep. Al Luna of Houston, and Hugo Berlanga of Corpus Christi. They were trading votes, making deals, using their influence and power, talking to every member in the House. “The difference between this battle and 1985 when we fought and won on this same issue dealing with pesticides is that there was a lot stronger and intense effort made [in 1985],” Hinojosa said. “And we organized not only here in the House but all the way down to the grassroots level, when we had all different types of organizations from the community on up, making phone calls to legislators, expressing their concerns on the indiscriminate use of pesticides. And that made the difference between victory and defeat.” Hinojosa said he did not want to sound overly critical of Hightower. But when the pesticide issue came up in ’85, “it was a full court press,” he said. “This time it wasn’t.” Surely as much of a factor, however, was the fact that in 1985 there was not a Republican governor using a veto threat to get House members to bend to his will. Some House members this year said they were voting for the pesticide board in order to “veto-proof” the ag department bill. And indeed, after the setback in the House, Hightower was in a tight spot. If he fought to have the amendment removed by the Senate, he risked provoking a veto of the entire agency bill. Though it had been difficult throughout the session to gauge exactly what the governor’s intent was with regard to the ag department, there were indications that the reduction of Hightower’s pesticide power might satisfy him. In the negotiation process that went down to the last week of the session, proposals were going back and forth between Lt. Gov. Hobby’s office and the governor’s chief of staff, George Bayoud. Hightower and Hobby succeeded in having the board expanded to nine members, so as to include a consumer representative, and a producer representative. The other members of the board will be: the director of the Texas Agriculture Experiment Station at Texas A&M, the dean of the college of agricultural sciences at Texas Tech, the dean of the UT School of Public Health in Houston, the director of environmental epidemiology at the Texas Department of Health, the chief of groundwater conservation at the Texas Water Commission, and the director of the institute for international agribusiness studies at Prairie View A&M. There is some irony in the fact that what has been done is to put pesticide regulation back in the hands of members who are, by and large, part of the “land grant college complex,” that Hightower attacked in his book Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times as “the sidekick and frequent servant of agriculture’s industrialized elite.” And yet there are reasons why the final outcome of the TDA debate is not an unmitigated loss. For one thing, Hightower’s opponents originally set out to try to take him off the ballot by making the commissioner’s position into an appointed job. This effort went nowhere. Secondly, the creation of the pesticide board does not affect the agency’s ability to enforce regulations that are already in place. And the board will not have the authority to repeal those existing regulations. The actual effect the new pesticide authority will have on pesticide regulation is not yet clear, nor is the larger political context within which the board will operate. Rep. Hinojosa contends that in the long run the board might be better for consumers and farmworkers. “Hightower’s not going to be the commissioner forever,” he points out. “So that board will serve as a check if we get another commissioner who is under the control and thumb of the Farm Bureau and Chemical Council.” The board may not necessarily be ineffective under a Democratic governor \(two of the positions are to the more optimistic observers in Austin have already imagined the board as a potential state Environmental Protection Agency though more effective, they hope, than the THE TEXAS OBSERVER 23
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