Lege Lines: Brewing Up Beer Bills, Biz Lobby Smacks Tax Cuts, and More

The Lege brews up beer bills, the biz lobby slams Patrick's tax cuts, and more

Senfronia Thompson
Senfronia Thompson (Photo by Jana Birchum)

THINKING ABOUT DRINKING

Don't mess with craft breweries. That's a lesson Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Hous­ton, learned this week after filing, then backpedaling on, a bill that would cut how much small breweries can sell directly.

Kevin Eltife
Kevin Eltife (Photo by John Anderson)

Since Prohibition, alcohol distribution in Texas has been a three-tiered structure: The breweries brew, the distributors distribute, and the retailers retail. The positive of the arrangement is that it ended the monopoly power of the big breweries over bar owners and liquor stores, but the downside was that the big distributors ended up in a cozy relationship with the big breweries.

In 1993 new laws allowed brewpubs (which could sell on-site, but not to retailers) and microbreweries (which could sell off-site, but not directly to customers). Then in 2013, after years of bipartisan pressure, Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, authored a raft of bills allowing brewpubs to sell a portion of their output off-site, and let small breweries, producing less than 125,000 barrels a year, sell 40,000 barrels without going through a distributor – scarcely a threat to Anheuser-Busch, but enough to give these small firms a big push. This year, Thompson proposed putting the bung back in the barrel. On March 17, she filed House Bill 3389, cutting that self-distribution cap by 87.5%, to 5,000 barrel per annum maximum. Cue howls of protest from the brewers, many of whom already sell more than 5,000 barrels directly. Thompson quickly issued a brief statement saying that she felt the purpose of the 2013 bills was to integrate craft brewers into the three-tiered system, and that there was "a movement afoot" to break the carefully crafted agreement between these new firms and the old institutions. Her bill has been sent to the House Licensing & Administrative Procedures, but in what could be an ominous sign for its progress, it wasn't on the agenda for its March 23 meeting. Brewery advocacy group Open the Taps now says it has been told by Thompson's staff that she will not push for a hearing.

In even better news for beer fans, Eltife has filed Senate Bill 1386, helping the nascent beer tourism industry: If passed, visitors to a brewery producing less than 225,000 barrels a year could take home up to 36 pints a month. The bill analysis argues that "this benefits retailers and distributors by allowing Texas craft brewers the ability to better market their products." It also means that brewery tours in Texas will be on the same footing as winery tours, or as brewery tours are in other states.

SHORT LINES

$209.8 billion: That's the headline number of HB 1, the draft state budget for 2016-17 approved by the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday. That's up $7.7 billion from the current biennium, and still leaves $8 billion to be potentially allocated in further negotiations. The Senate is thought to be a few days away from finalizing its draft... $433 million: That's the sum in HB 2, aka the supplemental budget, aka the bills the Legislature knew it was running up back in 2013, but pretended they weren't going to pay until 2015. The Republican-drafted plan would draw heavily on unspent dollars in health funds like the Children's Health Insurance Program, but Dems are angry that those funds weren't spent on high needs in the first place... A consortium of commercial groups, representing the state's manufacturers, oil and gas companies, and chemical companies, has sent a second letter to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the Texas Senate demanding they prioritize infrastructure investments rather than tax cuts. They repeat the concerns of their first letter (see Lege Lines: "Dubious Tax Cuts, Senate She­nan­igans, Twitter Trysts, and More," March 13) that the proposed homestead exemption and franchise tax reforms will do little to cut taxes, and the money would be better spent on roads, debt reduction, school finance, and state employee pensions... Lobbyist trade association the Professional Advocacy Association of Texas issued its midsession report and comparison to the 2013 session: The number of bills and resolutions filed is up 8%, and committee referrals are up, but the number of bills actually making it out of committee is dramatically down: 9% in the House, and a whopping 73% in the Sen­ate... Anti-frackers and advocates for local control over oil drilling were furious after the House Energy Resources Committee hearing on HB 40, a measure that would pre-empt local regulations over fracking such as those passed by voters in Denton last year. Chair Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, let lobbyists and representatives of the oil and gas industry dominate the first few hours of testimony... Big changes to the grand jury selection process were approved by the Senate in SB 135, getting rid of the grand jury commissioner method of jury selection. Currently, courts can either use a jury pool, or the judge can select a "key man" to pick the jury, a process that many fear can skew the process. The pool-only proposal now heads to the House... The Senate has also voted to extend what events are eligible for subsidies through the Major Events trust fund: SB 293 adds NASCAR, UFC, and events backed by ESPN to the list... Sen. Ted Cruz announced that he is running for president and, unsurprisingly, Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, retained her "more Tea Party than thou" credentials by pledging her support.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

House Appropriations Committee, House Bill 2, Dan Patrick, Drew Darby, Ted Cruz, Konni Burton, Senfronia Thompson, Kevin Eltife, breweries, Texas Budget, 84th Texas Legislature

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