State audit: Texas Agriculture fees take in more money than necessary

Texas cotton field (KXAN Photo)
Texas cotton field (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A new audit shows Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller set fee increases too high and as a result collected 31 percent more than the agency should have at $6.5 million.

Those fees eventually make their way to the consumer through increased prices. However, Commissioner Miller announced his department will look at lowering fees.

The fees are part of the Texas Department of Agriculture’s “cost recovery” program, meaning certain areas of the agency must pay for themselves through fees on the industry they regulate.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller originally raised the fees in January 2016 to hire more people. TDA workers make sure you get what you buy. He said he was dealing with a deficit and could not adequately protect Texas consumers. The industries with major increases? Gasoline and seeds.

“In the next 18 months or so, our industry was going to look very carefully at passing those increased fees along to buyers of that seed. That in turn raises the cost of groceries,” said Bryan Gentsch with the Texas Seed Trade Association. Gentsch represents 125 Texas companies who grow or sell seed, lots of wheat and lots of cotton. He thinks the fees Commissioner Miller and his department charge to run the program should come down.

“It is in the best interest of the consumers of Texas that TDA does their job and does it well. But that they don’t charge too much either because those costs are then passed along,” said Gentsch.

The new state audit also shows TDA didn’t have a thorough process in place to decide how much they should charge.

In his response to the audit, Commissioner Miller blamed lawmakers, who took away his ability to move money between programs and carry over money from one year to the next. His message was it was better to have too much money than not enough to protect the consumer.

He wrote, “Without these financial tools, it is impossible, or very difficult, for TDA to lower fees.” He went on to say the law makes them predict their money three years out and that is hard to plan for. His department must plan for legislative mandates and changes in industry and the economy.

However, on Aug. 22, he sent a memo saying he would begin the process to lower some fees because he saved money in other areas. The details of that are yet to be determined.

These fees have generated a lot of push back in the past. Money collected from those fees went toward hiring more people to check gas pumps for skimmers across the state, but a law was passed this legislative session passing that responsibility onto private companies.

The law took effect last week, cutting down the need for state-paid inspectors. Supporters say the law ensures regulation at the pump is more efficient requiring more regular inspections. Commissioner Miller argues the law opens the door for more consumer fraud because it delays state response and punishment after complaints are filed.

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