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Bush makes restoring Alamo a top priority

Last week, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush joined Governor Greg Abbott in welcoming the HISTORY Network and a host of Hollywood stars to the Lone Star State to kick off a fundraising campaign to restore and preserve the iconic Alamo in San Antonio.

The campaign is designed to promote the Alamo Endowment, with the goal of raising resources for structural improvements at the historical mission-turned-fort, and for the construction of a new visitors center to house over 200 artifacts donated by musician Phil Collins, a noted Alamo and Texas history enthusiast.

“The preservation and restoration of the Alamo is one of my top priorities,” Commissioner Bush said. As head of the General Land Office, Commissioner Bush now oversees management of the most visited site in the state, and called upon all Texans to participate in the preservation effort. “Now is the time for all who love history – especially Texas history – to come together to defend this historic monument so that future generations may continue to visit the Alamo and understand what happened on this hallowed ground.

The kickoff of the campaign was in conjunction with the start of HISTORY Network’s new mini-series, “Texas Rising”, which stars the likes of Bill Paxton as General Sam Houston, as well as Brendan Fraser as a Texas Ranger. The series will begin the evening of Monday, May 25 on HISTORY, and will detail the events surrounding the famous battle of 1836.

For more information on the Alamo Endowment, click here.

For information on the HISTORY series, click here.

Photo by Bill Stipp (www.billstipp.com)

As Legislative Session nears end, Ag bills navigate towards passage

As the final days of the 84th Texas legislative session draw ever closer, there are several bills relating to Texas Agriculture to watch. Seven bills have been passed out of both legislative chambers and sent to the Governor’s desk. Of these, two have been signed into law, including Senate Bill 928, which abolishes the equine incentive program, and Senate Bill 1749, which relates to citrus pest and disease management for Texas’ citrus farmers.

The Texas Farm Bureau’s Legislative team noted several bills they are tracking in their weekly newsletter this week. Two of these bills, HB 4112 and HB 30, deal with groundwater ownership and the promotion of the development of brackish groundwater. Authored by Rep. DeWayne Burns, HB 4112 amends the Water Code to recognize that groundwater ownership and rights are established under the common law by the courts. The committee substitute of this bill removes the provision that a landowner has the right to “produce and save the groundwater beneath his or her property, but still recognizes the common law rights of the landowner to the groundwater beneath their land.

A third water bill that the Farm Bureau is tracking is HB 655, which encourages aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) projects that could provide alternative water storage solutions to combat some issues associated with above ground water storage.

More agriculture and property rights bills that continue to work through the process can be found in this chart:

Bill Author Subject Status
HB 942 Kacal Storage of Ammonium Nitrate Senate Intent 5/19/15
HB 1203 Murr Agritourism Pending: Calendar Committee
HB 1934 Kacal Beef Council Enrolled
SB 140 Perry GPS Sales Tax Enrolled
SB 474 Kolkhorst Eminent Domain – fees Pending: House Committee
SB 479 Schwertner Eminent Domain – repurchase Pending: House Committee
SB 970 Perry Animal Handling Enrolled
SB 1099 Estes Grain Indemnity Enrolled
SB 1339 Perry Ag Lien Pending: Calendar Committee
SB 1812 Kolkhorst Eminent Domain – List Pending: House Committee

To learn more about these bills, visit Texas Legislature Online at http://www.legis.state.tx.us/billlookup/billnumber.aspx

Also this week, the House preliminarily passed legislation that would allow physicians to prescribe low-THC cannabis to patients with a certain type of epilepsy. While some form of medical marijuana use is legal in 23 states across the nation, some legislators worry that this bill could open the door for broader marijuana legalization in Texas. Still, the measure is expected to pass the House this week and be sent to the Governor’s desk.

Agriculture Quick Hit

On May 14, Governor Greg Abbott announced that Kubota Tractor Corporation would relocate its headquarters to Grapevine, Texas, from its current home in Torrance, California. In a release, the Governor’s Press Secretary Amelia Chase said that the move will bring 344 jobs to the region. Other reports indicated that the move will also bring over $50 million in capital investments to the region and state. Kubota President and CEO Masata Yoshikawa also added that Texas’ business-friendly climate, and access to a large portion of their clients in the central United States, coupled with access to D/FW International Airport, were important factors in the company’s decision to relocate.

Construction of the corporate headquarters located near Grapevine Mills will begin this fall and is scheduled for completion in early 2017.

High Speed Rail

High-Speed Rail from Dallas to Houston faces hurdles in final days of legislative session

Over the past year, a plan to connect Big D to Houston has gone from a pie-in-the-sky dream to a real possibility with 60+ daily trips between the two cities via a 200 mph bullet train by the year 2021. While civic leaders in both cities anxiously dream of transit-oriented development surrounding stations in downtown cores, several legislators and landowners on the proposed route are pushing back against the proposal.

As the Texas House and Senate leaders work to hammer out a deal on the biannual state budget, one of the sticking points for a resolution between the two chambers has been a rider to the budget bill that would potentially kill the rail project. The rider would prohibit the Texas Department of Transportation from subsidizing or assisting in the construction of high-speed passenger rail. As The Texas Tribune’s Aman Betheja reported, while Texas Central Railways leadership has vowed to not take public operating subsidies, company officials nonetheless believe the rider would kill the train because TxDOT (the state agency in charge of transportation) would need to play a role in the project’s construction.

And while conservative organizations have praised the theory of a fully privately funded rail project, two GOP Senators (Sen. Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham and Sen. Charles Schwertner of Georgetown) remain the most vocal critics of the project. They both also serve on the budget conference committee.

These two legislators are joined in their opposition to the project by many rural Texas landowners, who fear much more than just losing their land. Many believe diminishing property values, spending taxpayer money on a private project and using eminent domain to buy residents out of their homes for a train they say they won’t even ride are also red flags.

“It’s not a good thing for Texas. It destroys a bunch of property, homes, farms and ranches that will never be the same,” said David Hunter, a landowner who has a home in Ennis along the projected rail route.

Speculation abounds about the fate of the project, especially during the waning days of the legislative session. But Senate Finance Chairwoman Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) told The Texas Tribune she is diligently working on a compromise.

Fracking Bill passes House, adds fuel to fire of state/local feud

Friday, the Texas House of Representatives passed House Bill 40, the Denton Fracking Bill, underscoring the broader local control narrative that has defined this legislative session, especially in the minds of municipal leaders across Texas.

The bill, which aims to provide statewide guidelines on the regulation of a variety of oil and gas activities, would most notably take away the ability of local authorities to impose their own regulations on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, operations.

A vote on the bill was delayed by a computer glitch early in the week, but by Friday, House members passed the measure by a 122-18 margin, with author, Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo), fending off all proposed amendments in the process.

The San Angelo Republican has repeatedly stated that without his bill, Texas would increasingly have a patchwork of inconsistent regulations that would undermine the future prosperity and economic impact of one of Texas’ most valuable assets.

Those who oppose the bill see it as a dangerous power grab, and one that will limit the rights of Texans to govern themselves across the many cities and towns across Texas.

The filing of the bill, and many like it, was spurred by the City of Denton’s 2014 measure, where residents of the North Texas city voted to ban fracking within the city limits. Darby’s bill, however, quickly became the focal point of the effort to protect continued production.

The Texas Municipal League, which had been one of the harshest critics of the bill prior to this week, dialed back its criticism following the addition of language by Darby and his committee to clarify where cities would be allowed to regulate, including emergency and fire response and noise.

While the bill easily passed the House Friday, the debate between the proper role of state and local authorities is sure to continue as other bills that include broad regulatory provisions in other arenas like gun rights come to the floor.

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Recent rains lift boats, but drought remains unbroken

The onslaught of late winter rain, sleet and snow made many North Texans feel as though they should begin the process of constructing an ark and start searching for two of each animal. But while reservoir levels got a significant boost, officials say the drought conditions in North Texas remain unbroken, but had improved.

According to officials from the North Texas Municipal Water District, the two lakes that service nearly 2 million residents in the region, Jim Chapman Lake and Lake Lavon, were up 7 feet and 5 feet, respectively. This raised the capacity of Chapman from 55 percent capacity to 65.5, and Lavon from 59 percent to 65.7 percent capacity.

Good news on a broader scale came from the Office of the Texas State Climatologist, with reports that the percentage of Texas not under drought conditions increased from 38.75% last week to 42.15% during the first part of March.

While the precipitation has given a modest boost to reservoirs, for farmers across Texas, the recent rains were almost too much of a good thing. With few warm, sunny days to dry out fields, the planting of many spring crops were further delayed. According to compiled reports from Texas A&M AgriLife Extension writer Robert Burns, while wheat was doing well, producers were anxious to plant corn in Central Texas. Burns also reported that East Texas was particularly saturated, to the point where some livestock were getting stuck in the mud and had to be towed out.

For the full report from the AgriLife Extension, click here.

Former_Texas_Land_Commissioner_Bob_Armstrong

Dipping a chip in memory of a Texas legend

If you’ve dined at a Tex-Mex restaurant, you’ve probably tried Bob Armstrong dip. The warm, melted queso piled high with zesty taco meat and smooth, fresh guacamole is at first blush a kooky , Warholian concoction. But after dipping a salty tortilla chip into the bowl and tasting it, one can’t help but appreciate the culinary delight, and finish off the entire bowl.

Texas recently lost the dish’s namesake, as former Land Commissioner Robert Landis “Bob” Armstrong passed away on March 1. And while most Texans will continue to enjoy the appetizer bearing his name, his legacy and impact on the great state go far beyond the dinner table.

Armstrong served in the Texas House of Representatives from 1963 to 1971 after winning a special election in the fall of 1963. He was supposed to be sworn into office on November 22 of that year, but his swearing in was delayed due to the tragic assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Following his service in the legislature, Armstrong ran for Texas Land Commissioner in 1970, and served for 12 years. He was described by many as having a casual, good-humored nature, while also possessing a true passion and determination for conserving public lands and minimizing environmental impact.

During his time as Land Commissioner, his friendly demeanor, coupled with a tight schedule and empty stomach, led him to famously poke his head into the kitchen of Matt’s El Rancho, a local Austin eatery, and ask a then teenage Matt Martinez, Jr. to “whip me up something different”. (Full recount of the history of the Bob Armstrong dip can be found here.) Martinez knew Armstrong well, and went around the kitchen and quickly and happily whipped up the now-famous dip. The dish was born, but Armstrong’s work was not yet finished.

He soon followed his twelve years of service as Land Commissioner with an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination for governor, losing to then-Attorney General Mark White. White would go on to win the gubernatorial election, but appointed his former rival Armstrong to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission in 1985. From this post, he encouraged the state to purchase 212,000 of ranch land north of the Big Bend National Park, an acquisition that formed the biggest state park in Texas, the Big Bend Ranch State Park.

Armstrong was remembered by many for being among the earliest public officials to promote protection of Texas’ environmental interests. He also helped increase the state’s revenues from oil and gas production, helping to fund Texas universities and schools.

In 1993, Armstrong continued his public service, having been appointed by then-President Bill Clinton to serve as assistant secretary for land and minerals management at the Department of the Interior in 1993, where he served for five years. At the same time, the famous dip also made it’s way to the nation’s capitol.

Following his service in Washington, Armstrong returned to his native Austin, where he lived with his wife, Linda Aaker, until his passing the first Sunday of March, 2015.

Pecan Trees

Growing a Healthier Texas

In late February, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller bucked a federal report on dietary guidelines, claiming that the report’s recommendations are unfounded and that individuals, not bureaucrats, knew best how to feed themselves and their children.

Commissioner Miller was, rightfully, defending the liberties of individuals to make their own choices on how to fuel themselves and their families, and he was also, rightfully, defending the interests of Texas’ ranching community.

What the Commissioner might have missed, however, was on seizing the larger opportunity to underscore his leadership role for Texans when it comes to championing a healthy lifestyle and nutrition plan, and showcase the outstanding programs already in place in Texas.

The Texas Agriculture Commissioner is uniquely positioned to showcase the many healthy food choices offered by farmers and ranchers across the Lone Star State. While Texas remains the top beef-producing state in the nation, it is also a high-volume producer of wheat, various rice crops, peanuts and pecans, soybeans, a host of citrus and other fruit, even vegetables like cabbage. With a state that produces such an array of locally grown products, being a cheerleader for these products is an easy win.

In addition to championing Texas farming, the Agriculture Commissioner has a built-in platform for helping Texans live a healthy lifestyle. The Texas Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition division is a part of the agency that serves millions of Texas across the socioeconomic and demographic spectrum.

With farm to school programs, as well as the Healthy Community Network that unites local elected officials from across Texas with best practices for a healthy community, Texas Agriculture is well positioned to be the torch bearer for a healthier Texas. According to the Food and Nutrition division, all of these efforts can be summed up by the “3Es” of healthy living: Education, Exercise and Eating Right.

Unclaimed Mineral Proceeds Commission

Thousands of Texans who are descendants of original Spanish land grant holders will learn this month if they can collect royalties from mineral rights held in the state’s unclaimed property division when the Unclaimed Mineral Proceeds Commission delivers its report to the Lt. Governor and Speaker of the House and the newly convened legislature.
During the 83rd Legislative Session, the Commission was formed by the passage of House Bill 724, and is comprised of six members appointed by the governor – three members who represent the interests of land grant heirs and three members who have expertise in property law.

In the late 18th century, Spanish colonial settlement of Texas was based on a “land grant” system. Franciscans, for example were given land to settle missions, while other settlers were given land to settle San Antonio. Other large tracts of land were given to Spanish viceroys, and later to settlers like Stephen F. Austin.

Texans like George Farias, a descendant of an original Spanish land grant recipients, claim that that mineral rights belong to he and his fellow descendants. Attorney Eileen McKenzie Fowler, who has represented the nearly 14,000 descendants like Farias for nearly a decade, remains hopeful that the formation of the Commission is a step in their direction.

Proponents of the move to give these descendants a piece of the pie claim that even a share of the money would go a long way to resolving what they see as property unfairly taken from their families. The group has even taken to Facebook, creating a group page, the South Texas Tejano Land Grant Heirs.

Others, including Commission Chairman Lance Bruun, say the claims are unfounded. He points to the Texas Constitution of 1876, and says that document states that the mineral rights were handed over to the then owners of the land, taking them out of the hands of the land grantees if they no longer owned the land.

Perhaps most important to the issue is the actual amount of money to which descendants could lay claim. According to Francis Torres, the head of the Texas Comptroller’s Unclaimed Property Division, recently stated in an interview with KENS 5 San Antonio that only a fraction of a percent of oil money comes in without identifying information. Torres says the total is around $400,000, which does not add up to much spilt among the 14,000 descendants.

The Commission will expire in June of 2015.

What does the Texas Land Commissioner do?

As the 84th Legislative Session gets underway, the campaigning is over and it’s time to start governing. As you probably know, Texans voted on a new Texas Land Commissioner last November. But did you know that electing Land Commissioners is a tradition as old as Texas herself?

The Office of Land Commissioner is the oldest, continuous elected position in Texas history, and predates all other state executive positions, including the governor. In 1836, immediately following the Texas Revolution, the First Congress of the Republic of Texas established the General Land Office to manage the public domain. The Land Commissioner was charged with collecting and archiving records, providing maps and surveys, and issuing titles. In addition, the office was to verify Spanish and Mexican titles to determine which land was in the public domain and which was privately owned.

Throughout the years, the GLO has taken several other critical state matters under its jurisdiction. Included among these are the management of the Permanent School Fund, keeping Texas beaches open for all citizens and helping Texas veterans.

As George P. Bush takes on the role of 28th Texas Land Commissioner, the General Land Office will continue to serve under it’s motto:

“The Texas General Land Office serves the schoolchildren, veterans, and all people of Texas by preserving their history, protecting their environment, expanding economic opportunity, helping communities rebuild after disasters, and maximizing state revenue through innovative administration and prudent stewardship of state lands and resources.”

With that in mind, here are a few ways the General Land Office serves Texans that you may not have known about:

  • The Texas Veterans Land Board (VLB), a division of the GLO, continues to provide low-interest loans on land a home purchases to impoverished and disabled Texas Veterans.
  • Citizens can order historical county, city and land maps and sketches, as well as historical research guides on items such as Spanish Land Grants through the GLO. The office also cycles through several online digital exhibits throughout the year.
  • The Land Commissioner serves as chairman of various state boards and commissioner, including chair of the Texas Farm & Ranch Lands Conservation Council, the Coastal Land Advisory Council and the Texas State Veterans Cemetery Committee, among others.

Looking into the Crystal Ball: the 84th Texas Legislative Session

As the Texas Legislature convenes on the second Tuesday in January of 2015 with 22 newly minted House members, and seven fresh faces on the Senate floor, there will be plenty of new energy, along with a little confusion.

And while these new legislators will bring their own ideas on new legislation, several groups around the state are predicting that the new crop will be facing some age-old challenges, and a few new ones, as well.

In the 2013 session, legislators authorized transferring $2 billion from the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund, better known as the “Rainy Day Fund”, to create a new loan program that was later approved by voters via a constitutional amendment last November. According to Robert McKnight, second Vice President of Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raiser’s Association, however, the planning for Texas’ future water needs has just begun:

“Some say water may not be an issue this session; however, TSCRA believes this important resource will be a major topic not only this session, but for ones to come. As Texas continues to struggle with drought conditions and the need for water grows in our state, some groundwater ownership issues could come up. TSCRA staunchly believes groundwater is groundwater. If a water resource lies beneath your property, you own it. TSCRA will be active in water rights and ownership issues during this session.” (Source: http://tscra.org/news_releases_blog/?p=1047)

While water supply may be an age-old challenge, it is one of the high-profile usages of the resource that should also get plenty of attention this session. According to Royce Poinsett, a senior attorney in Austin with Gardere Wynne Sewell LLP’s government affairs practice, the energy sector only uses about 1 percent of Texas’ water. Consumption of water in fracking and by power plants becomes more pronounced during times of drought and limited water availability, Poinsett added. (Source: http://shalemag.com/a-preview-of-the-84th-legislature/)

On the heels of the recently passed fracking ban in the City of Denton, some legislators will face the challenge of the delicate balancing act of local control issues and a seeming growing resistance to fracking in several communities with the importance of oil and gas production to the state’s economy, and more specifically the revenue generated that goes to the Permanent School Fund.

Moreover, the issue will be given further interest with the efforts of former Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who quickly filed suit against the Denton fracking ban following its approval last fall. Patterson claimed that the ban would deprive the General Land Office of money that it could make from the land and mineral rights it owns in Denton County. It is expected that the recently sworn in George P. Bush will take up the mantle where Patterson left off.

Lastly, new Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, who vowed that there would be property tax relief for all Texans on the campaign trail, recently renewed that pledge, saying he would not let a budget pass the Senate without it. But the legislature will now have to wrestle with falling oil and gas prices and less budget surplus with which they can work.