Senate IGR Committee Addresses Winery IssuesAUSTIN - The Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations met today, October 6, 2004 at the State Capitol to listen to concerns on Wineries and Wine Distributors. The committee is gathering data and studying the Texas wine producing industry in order to develop recommendations to the 79th Legislature for increasing the economic impact of the wine producing industry in Texas.
Invited Testimony included: Michael Vilim, Board Member and President Elect, Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Foundation; Ernie Loeffler, Executive Director, Fredericksberg Convention & Visitor's Bureau; Martin Hubert, Deputy Commissioner, Texas Department of Agriculture; Tim Dodd, Ph.D., Director, Texas Wine Marketing Research Institute; Edward W. Hellman, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Viticulture, Texas A&M University, Agricultural Research and Extension Center, Lubbock; James S. Kamas, M.S., Assistant Professor and Fruit Specialist, Department of Horticultural Sciences, Texas A&M University; David Scotch, CPA, Master's Candidate - University of Bordeaux; Gabe Parker, Owner, Homestead Winery, Texas Wine & Grape Growers' Association Legislative Committee; Ben Valentino, President, Texas Wine and Grape Growers' Association; Cord Switzer, Owner, Fredericksburg Winery (Also Representing Texas Hill Country Wineries); Craig Parker, Winemaker, Flat Creek Estates; Alphonse Dotson, Owner, Certenberg Vineyard; Ed Auler, Owner, Fall Creek Vineyards; Jeannene Fox, Assistant Administrator, Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission (TABC) and Lou Bright, General Counsel, TABC.
Witnesses gave insightful information as to the production, use, and sale of Texas grapes. Mr. Switzer targeted such problems as state permit issues and logistics of nationwide distribution and the relative anonymity of Texas wineries to other states. Mr. Parker--a native of Australia--compared that country's number of wineries to that of Texas, and he argued that Australia had a much higher per capita wine consumption rate than Texas. Many other witnesses spoke to the issues of water quality and pesticides as well.
The Committee is chaired by Senator Frank Madla and membership includes Senator Kim Brimer--Vice Chair, Senator Bob Deuell, Senator Mario Gallegos, and Senator Jeff Wentworth. The committee stands in recess subject to the call of the chair.
Senate Trade Committee Examines Border Issues
The Texas Senate Committee on International Relations and Trade traveled to Texas A&M International University in Laredo today, October 6, 2004, to hear from area leaders about trade issues affecting the Texas border.
Mayor Elizabeth G. "Betty" Flores welcomed the committee, asking for changes in state law that would make export certification easier for retailers. She also criticized the federal government's "US-VISIT" program that she and other border leaders have said would hurt the border's economy by restricting the movement of people from Mexico to the U.S. Webb County Commissioner Judith Gutierrez followed, asking for more state help in building infrastructure in the underdeveloped border settlements called "colonias".
Tommy Davis, Director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, testified that DPS's goal is to never make the public wait in line for services, be that driver's licenses or truck inspections at the border. Other local DPS officials said that safety inspections in Mexico could indeed reduce wait times for commercial traffic at border checkpoints, and that they had met with federal officials to see what they could do to facilitate that. Unfortunately, they said Mexico would not allow U.S. inspectors into that country to check up on any proposed inspection station there and so there had not been any movement on the issue. Committee member Senator Judith Zaffirini was not satisfied with this answer, saying that this was an old problem and that she expected specific solutions during this next session.
Amadeo Saenz from the Texas Department of Transportation, also spoke on issues with border inspection stations. TxDOT officials reported that there has been good progress in establishing "one-stop" border stations where Mexican trucks could take care of all paperwork upon entering the U.S., instead of having to visit several different agencies as they do currently. Committee member Senator Eliot Shapleigh from El Paso told the other members that this was urgent, saying "What's happening now is that things are being slowed down all along the border".
Local doctors testified that issues facing them include communicating with doctors across the border, getting compensated for serving Mexican citizens who have emergencies, and increasing medical malpractice insurance rates.
John Henneberger from the Texas Low Income Housing Coalition, said that a proposed budget cut would mean that 70 families would be unable to find affordable housing. He said that populations without access to conventional housing are literally building their own homes, many times not to code, and that it is essential that programs that help people find decent housing be continued. Committee member Senator Eliot Shapleigh said that part of that problem was that Spanish-speaking, low-income residents were victims of what he called "predatory lending" where lenders forced illegal provisions on borrowers who didn't know they were being unfairly treated. He said that of the ten highest-cost housing loan markets in the country, seven were along the Texas-Mexico border.
John Adams, of the Laredo Development Foundation said that infrastructure was essential not only to the growth of Laredo, but the growth of trade into Texas. He testified that seventy percent of trade between Texas and Mexico crosses at Laredo, and that business generated by this trade can be harnessed to fuel future development of Webb County.
Dennis Nixon and Gerry Schwebel, both of the International Bank of Commerce of Laredo, both testified that there would be problems with the US-VISIT Program, and criticized the federal Department of Homeland Security, saying that it refused to openly discuss the program and take into account the needs of border communities. He said the Department had held meetings in border communities with no advance warning and was refusing to work in good faith with local officials. Nixon said that a meeting wasn't even scheduled for Laredo: "Either out of contempt, or ineptness, they didn't.", and that one was scheduled only after extreme pressure was applied. "They have presented us with a choice, free trade or fear--and they have chosen fear." He also criticized federal government policies that allow Canadian visitors many more privileges than Mexican visitors.
Diane Rath, from the Texas Workforce Commission, reported to the committee on how her agency's training programs are implemented in Laredo. She told the committee that because the State of Texas doesn't support job training at a level comparable to other nearby states, that local communities are having to support job training with local dollars. She and Senator Shapleigh shared their mutual frustration with the actions of the Texas Education Agency, saying TEA had failed to spend money that the Legislature had earmarked for adult literacy and job skills training as the senators had directed.
Other witnesses from the Texas Water Development Board, South Texas Workforce Development Board, Texas A&M Center for Housing and Urban Development and the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs were scheduled to testify.
The Texas Senate Committee on International Relations and Trade is chaired by Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr. Members include Senators Eliot Shapleigh as vice-chair, John Carona, Kevin Eltife, Craig Estes, Kel Seliger and Judith Zaffirini.