84th Legislature Lethargic

by Alex Canepa

The Texas Legislature adjourned for its year-and-a-half hibernation on June 1, confounding many observers who expected a productive session after Republicans secured historic majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Unlike the fireworks of 2013, the 84th Legislature was a relatively staid affair characterized by, in the words of the Texas Tribune’s Ross Ramsey, “small visions and small results.” While Democrats breathed sighs of relief that some controversial topics were left on the back burner, many bills that would have strengthened Texas’ food system also fell victim to the Legislature’s inertia.

Despite the support of both the Austin-based Sustainable Food Center and the Capital Area Food Bank, House Bill (H.B.) 1616, which would have provided incentives for SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) recipients to shop at farmers markets, was left languishing in the House Agriculture and Livestock Committee. Similarly, bills that would have encouraged farm-to-cafeteria initiatives and eased some of the regulations faced by small-scale and organic farmers also failed to emerge from committee. Heavy-hitters in the public health world also came up short.

Of the 26 bills that the Michael and Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living supported, only one became law—schools are now allowed the option to develop and implement locally-funded programs to provide free or reduced-price school breakfast instead of utilizing the national school breakfast program. The most frustrating moment of the session, however, occurred on May 15, when a bill by Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) that would have provided incentives for grocery stores to open in underserved “food deserts” appeared to have passed the House by a vote of 69-67, only to fail 64-67 when the vote was re-counted.

Despite setbacks for proponents of sensible food policies, the 84th Legislature was not without its bright spots. Two tea party-backed freshmen, Sens. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) and Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe), showed an interest in supporting both family farms and conservation stewardship programs. Creighton, a no-nonsense rancher, revealed a soft spot for small-scale beekeeping and championed a successful bill that allows beekeepers to market value-added products directly to consumers without having to jump through the regulatory hoops to which larger producers are subject. Similarly, Sen. Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville) and Rep. John Cyrier (R-Lockhart) succeeded in passing Senate Bill (S.B.) 1978, which bolstered “Hunters for the Hungry,” a program that donates venison to food banks that would otherwise be unable to offer lean protein options to their patrons.

While a genuine coalition in support of sensible food policies failed to coalesce during the 84th Legislature, the champions of “Hunters for the Hungry”—a Democrat representing a district with high levels of obesity and a Republican representing a district replete with small farms and hunting enthusiasts—offered a glimpse into the kind of partnerships that need to occur if the 85th Legislature, which convenes on January 10, 2017, is to be more successful than its predecessor.