Thorny Texas regulations apply to everyday items like roses and tacos that most Texans would think are the province of the private sector. Moreover, these regulations include criminal penalties, as with 1,700 other state laws and countless city ordinances.
Thankfully, a few such state rules may be on the verge of being pruned. Earlier this month, the Sunset Advisory Commission, which regularly reviews Texas state agencies to identify ways in which they have outlived their usefulness, unearthed numerous excessive regulations with criminal penalties imposed by the Texas Department of Agriculture.
The Commission recommended that rose graders no longer be required to obtain a government-issued certificate. Unfortunately, the Commission stopped short of recommending that the underlying law mandating the grading of roses be plucked from the books. No other plant is subject to such bureaucratic burdens.
The Commission also took aim at a sweeping Department of Agriculture requirement that “a person, packer, handler, dealer, processor or warehouseman may not receive or handle Texas grown fruits or vegetables without a license.” The Commission suggests that this licensing scheme, which is enforceable with criminal penalties, be eliminated insofar as it applies to cash dealers who sell produce at flea markets and roadsides.
However, the Commission only nibbled at the cornucopia of excessive agriculture regulations. It is a Class A misdemeanor (up to a year in jail) to “use, handle, store, or dispose of a pesticide in a manner that injures vegetation, crops, wildlife, or pollinating insects.” Violating grain warehouse rules can be a second-degree felony; the offender could be warehoused in state prison for up to 20 years.
When the food finally makes its way to the plate, the tentacles of government are still stirring the pot. Dozens of taco truck owners are preparing another lawsuit against the City of Houston over the new mobile food vendor ordinance the City approved late last year.
Among the new requirements, mobile food vendors must provide a restroom within 500 feet, presumably by reaching an agreement with a nearby business. Rather than changing their water through a private service, they must now do so at the city-run commissary every 24 hours. Taco truck owners say this costs them three hours out of every day. The City will use radio frequency tags to enforce the requirement – the tags haven’t been issued but vendors are already paying for them.
Mobile food vendors that operate on private property like a construction site must display notarized permission from the property owner and register the site with Houston bureaucrats every time they relocate. Finally, vendors must file a detailed description of their menu with the City that lists every ingredient in every item.
Other major cities also have excruciatingly detailed regulations governing food service. For example, in San Antonio, it’s a misdemeanor if ice is not the proper shape – it must be in “chipped, crushed or cubed form.”
This smorgasbord of rules requires entrepreneurs to take time and money away from serving customers. How many peaches and tacos must be sold to pay a lawyer to fill out paperwork or the cost of a citation?
Last year, Jefferson Parish in Louisiana banned taco trucks altogether in most areas after they had sprung up to serve Hispanic construction workers helping rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. Former Houston City Council Member Carol Alvarado worried that Houston’s ordinance “is going after Latino-owned mobile food vendors.” Indeed, minorities and those without economic and political power are the most vulnerable when regulators target certain businesses.
Ultimately, Texas farmers and food vendors don’t profit from making their customers sick. In such very rare instances, they can face incredibly costly lawsuits. Instead of producing another crop of rules that stifle entrepreneurship and criminalize ordinary business activities, government should leave the field and let the market for food and flowers bloom.
Marc A. Levin, Esq., is Director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin.