The election for Texas' next state agriculture commissioner will be a heated race centered around, as it seems, one topic: barbecue. Let's start from the beginning. On June 1, 2017, Texas passed House Bill 2029, a bill that exempted barbecue joints from registering scales that show customers the weight of their food when sold for immediate consumption. Current Commissioner Sid Miller did not support the bill's trajectory through the Texas legislature, but has ultimately begun to enforce the rule to "protect consumers and follow state law," as the Houston Chronicle reported.
The barbecue bill's controversy stems from the small business community in Texas. The bill removed regulations that previously required restaurants that sell food by the pound to have scales visible to customers. The bill, per the Austin American-Statesman, was a direct response to Commissioner Miller's Operation Maverick, one that increased scale inspections and fines at restaurant businesses in the state, including barbecue joints. In the words of Ken Herman at the Austin American-Statesman,
Here's the rub: While the new law exempts scales used to weigh "food sold for immediate consumption," the ag department's new rule limits the exemption only to scales used to weigh food "sold for immediate consumption on the premises." Those last three words reduce the number of businesses that would be exempt.
Those scales also must be registered with the state, a fee that costs $35. However, that's not the only fee incurred by this transition. Newly certified scales cost a great deal, around several thousand dollars. Many small business owners have had the same scales in their businesses for over 20 years, already paying a pretty penny decades ago to comply.
That's not the only fee associated with the deregulation bill, however. Some restaurants with drive-thrus in particular will have to spend a pretty penny renovating their checkout lines so scales are visible to customers. Commissioner Sid Miller is at the heart of controversy, invoking a decades-old law that has never been enforced as a means of enforcing the barbecue deregulation bill, one he was against.
In May 2017, he published an opinion piece for The Texas Tribune that stated his disdain for the barbecue deregulation efforts.
"This bad bill gives places like barbecue joints a license to steal by exempting them from state consumer protection laws designed to protect Texans like you and me...
I trust my local barbecue guy, but I still want to see that when I buy a pound of sausage I'm getting a pound of sausage.
It only costs a barbecue restaurant $35 per year to register that scale. That's about the same cost as a couple of pounds of brisket. Cowboy logic says that this isn't about the fee."
Trey Miller's response
Despite Miller's open opposition to the rule, the ways in which he has enforced it have been extremely controversial. Republican primary challenger Trey Blocker released new campaign ads that highlight three barbecue restaurant owners that are complaining about Sid Miller's use of the ancient law of scales. Many are unhappy with the Agriculture Commission's guidelines for actually implementing the law where some restaurants were exempt.
As the Houston Chronicle reported, the Texas Restaurant Association complained to Miller about the rule change, and 45 state lawmakers believe that Commissioner Miller went beyond the Legislature's intent in upholding the new law, earning thousands of dollars in registration fees through a stretch of his jurisdiction.
The Texas Restaurant Association stated that the rules "are in direct conflict with the clear and unambiguous language of the statute." And as Ken Herman pointed out, Miller argues that the restaurant association is putting the private interest of restaurants above the general public interest by expanding the HB 2029.
Do you recognize any of your favorite barbecue joints in these campaign ads? Where do you stand on the barbecue bill?