Author Archives: Shannon Najmabadi

New law allows hunting hogs from hot air balloons, but few balloonists will offer it

Though a new Texas law allows hunters to shoot feral hogs and coyotes from hot air balloons, it’s not easy to find a balloonist offering the activity.

“I have never had a phone call from anybody asking to do this,” said Pat Cannon of Lewisville, spokesman for the Balloon Federation of America. “I think that people have not stopped laughing yet.”

The law went into effect Sept. 1, but state permitters, insurers and balloonists say they haven’t heard of anyone planning to hunt hogs from hot air balloons. They point to factors like visibility and difficulty steering that make the activity hard.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has not granted any of the permits needed for hot air balloon hunting, said Steve Lightfoot, a department spokesman. Rob Schantz of Jacksonville, Florida, who heads one of the country’s few balloon insurance agencies, said no balloonists had asked if the activity could be covered under their policies. His agency will not offer coverage for aerial hunting.

Among other logistical challenges, the balloon’s burners make a “horrendous roaring noise,” Schantz said. “It would scare anything away, and if they had a chance to take a shot, you could shoot somebody’s dog or shoot a person.”

The new law, authored by state Rep. Mark Keough, R-The Woodlands, is just one of Texas legislators’ attempts to curb the feral hog population in the state. Called a menace, the estimated 2 million feral hogs in Texas are responsible for about $400 million in damage each year, and their population would grow rapidly if left unchecked. A “pork-chopper” bill – allowing hogs to be hunted from helicopters – has been on the books since 2011, and state officials have considered poisoning the animals with a lethal pesticide.

Lightfoot said department rules that govern hunting from a helicopter are similar to those for gunning from a hot air balloon. Among them is a requirement that there be an agreement with a landowner permitting aerial hunting on his or her property. Lightfoot said Tuesday the department had received one phone call inquiring about the needed permits, but that none had been issued.

Keough said in a statement the new law “will open a whole new industry towards eliminating the growing population of feral hogs in the State of Texas.” After the measure passed both legislative chambers in May, state Rep. John Cyrier, R-Lockhart, wrote a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott saying it could lead to “future catastrophes” without increased oversight of commercial ballooning.

Judith McGeary, executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, said feral hogs pose a very significant problem to farmers and rural communities, as they destroy land and can carry diseases.

“There hasn’t been a good way to control them,” she said. Hunting from a hot air balloon isn’t expected to be a magic bullet, she said, but it seems like a “reasonable additional tool to add.”

But balloonists and pilots point to numerous challenges that make hunting from a hot air balloon difficult, if not impossible.

First, hot air balloons only fly under certain conditions. Wind, clouds, thermals and time of day are taken into account by the balloonist, and aren’t always conducive to hunting. For example, because balloons float on the wind, they couldn’t circle a pack of feral hogs while the hunters tried to shoot them.

“Let’s just assume you have a herd of feral hogs running one way and … they turn left. The balloon can’t turn left,” said Schantz, the insurance underwriter. “The balloon just keeps going and the feral hogs are off on their merry way the other way.”

For similar reasons, balloons would likely be unable to stop to retrieve the carcasses of shot hogs, said Joe Reynolds, a private pilot in Austin. Because the animals can weigh hundreds of pounds, it would also be difficult to hoist them into the balloon’s basket, and they might exceed the balloon’s load limit, said Reynolds.

Ideally, Cannon said, hot air balloon hunting would take place over land that has a large feral hog population, is owned by one person, and is in a fairly rural area – as balloons must fly at higher altitudes over houses and populated zones. A GPS tracker could help balloonists navigate boundaries that demarcate one property from the next, and make notes of where shot feral hogs fall. The landowner or someone else on the ground could pick up the carcasses. 

Still, spotting those property limits from the air can be difficult, Cannon said. If the balloon is accidentally flown over a neighbor’s property, and “somebody points a gun down and shoots and discharges a weapon over that guy’s land,” Cannon said, “he could be prosecuted for that.” Dogs, donkeys or other animals could be mistaken for feral hogs and coyotes from the vantage point of a balloon.

Reynolds, the private pilot, said he’s fielded calls about the activity. But it often becomes immediately apparent “that the reality of it is not going to work.”

“I can’t speak for every balloon pilot in the world,” he added, “but nobody that I’ve talked to is going to try to take any of this on.”

Disclosure: The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Posted in Latest, State | Comments Off on New law allows hunting hogs from hot air balloons, but few balloonists will offer it

Officials are starting to grapple with the costs of Harvey. Here’s what you should know today.

With video of southeast Texas flooding rolling in the background, state emergency workers tackle Hurricane Harvey-related crises at the Texas DPS Emergency Operations Center (EOC) on Sept. 1, 2017. 

As the extent of the damage wrought by Hurricane Harvey becomes apparent, federal and state relief efforts are coming into focus.

The death toll for the storm has reached 50 people, the Houston Chronicle reported on Saturday, and the Texas Department of Public Safety said more than 185,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed by the storm, according to the Washington Post.

President Donald Trump is scheduled to visit Houston on Saturday, where he’s expected to meet with Harvey survivors after being criticized for not doing so while in Corpus Christi and Austin on Tuesday. Houston activists are reportedly planning to protest Trump’s midday visit to a relief center, according to the Chronicle. Saturday’s visit will be Mayor Sylvester Turner’s first opportunity to talk to Trump since Harvey made landfall, the Chronicle said, though the president has communicated regularly with Gov. Greg Abbott.

Trump on Friday called for $7.9 billion in federal assistance, a first installment in what’s expected to be a more expansive relief package, according to the Associated Press. Of that, $7.4 billion would go to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and $450 million to disaster loans for small businesses. The New York Times reported a second request for $6.7 billion would follow.

Abbott said Wednesday he expects the state will need far more than $120 billion, the amount of federal relief provided after Hurricane Katrina, the Post reported. And Turner told CNN Friday, “We need immediately, right now, just for debris removal alone, anywhere between $75 million to $100 million.”

In a message posted to Twitter, U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan said the chamber will “act quickly” on disaster relief funding, with a vote expected to come next week when Congress returns from an August recess. Meanwhile, state lawmakers have set a committee hearing for Thursday to discuss housing needs in the wake of Harvey. Abbott has already said a second special legislative session would not be necessary, and that the state has enough resources to “address the needs between now and the next session.”

Trump has said he plans to donate $1 million of his personal money to Harvey relief. He also has called for Sunday to be a national day of prayer for those impacted by the storm.

Abbott, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick all said they would commit $100,000 through their campaigns to a Harvey relief fund announced by the governor Friday. Patrick added in a message posted to Twitter that he and his wife would make a personal donation of $25,000 to the fund – which Abbott wants raise $100 million for over Labor Day weekend.

Posted in Latest, Local, State | Comments Off on Officials are starting to grapple with the costs of Harvey. Here’s what you should know today.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick calls city governments the source of “all our problems in America”

After two days of contentious debate and several bills passed, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick congratulates the Senate on what he says was a job well done on July 26, 2017.   The Senate tackled bills on 18 issues, sending them over to the House for consideration in the first-called special session. 

City governments, particularly those led by Democrats, are the source of problems nationwide, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said during a nationally televised interview Friday.

“People are happy with their governments at their state level, they’re not with the city,” said Patrick, a Republican, in an interview with Fox Business Network. He was responding to a question about gubernatorial races.

“Our cities are still controlled by Democrats,” he added. “And where do we have all our problems in America? Not at the state level run by Republicans, but in our cities that are mostly controlled by Democrat mayors and Democrat city council men and women. That’s where you see liberal policies. That’s where you see high taxes. That’s where you see street crime.”

The comments drew a quick response from mayors in Texas. In a message posted to Twitter, Austin Mayor Steve Adler responded, “If it’s wrong to have lower jobless and crime rates than Texas as a whole, I don’t want to be right. Certainly not that far right.”

Patrick’s remarks came halfway through a special legislative session in which lawmakers have repeatedly taken aim at local governments. Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has proposed to lawmakers a long list of ideas related to how cities and counties set budgets, regulate land use and approve construction projects.

Some of the most controversial bills now making their way through the Legislature would require a local election to approve property tax rate increases over a certain percentage and legislation that would regulate which bathrooms transgender people can use. Current versions of the bathroom proposal would preempt parts of local nondiscrimination ordinances that include protections for transgender people.

Many city officials have criticized the Legislature’s efforts, saying city governments need freedom and flexibility to govern.

“We are closer to our residents than the state is or the federal government, so we know what is best for our community because we are responsible for our community,” said El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, a Republican. “Not only is El Paso the largest U.S. city on the Mexican border, we’re also ranked as the safest city in the nation.”

Mayors from two of the state’s six biggest cities are Republican: Margo, plus Betsy Price of Fort Worth.

But “the fact that city elections are nonpartisan is one of the greatest things about city government,” said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League. “We like to say that potholes aren’t Democratic or Republican… it costs the same amount regardless of ideology.” 

Disclosure: Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chairman, and Dee Margo have been financial supporters of the Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Posted in Latest, State | Comments Off on Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick calls city governments the source of “all our problems in America”

Senate gives early OK to must-pass “sunset” legislation

State Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, talks with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on the dais during the Senate session on July 19, 2017.  After passing SB20 the sunset bill, the Senate will reconvene at midnight to pass the bills to third reading. 

A fast-moving Senate gave unanimous early approval to critical “sunset legislation” on Wednesday afternoon, using two bills to extend the life of five state agencies held political hostage at the end of the regular legislative session.

The special session’s Senate Bill 20 and Senate Bill 60, authored by state Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, would reauthorize the Texas Medical Board and four other state agencies. Gov. Greg Abbott has said he won’t add other hot-button items to legislators’ agenda until after they keep those agencies afloat. 

The Senate will reconvene one minute after midnight, when lawmakers in the upper chamber can take a final vote on both bills. 

“I will bring the pizza and the soda pop,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick joked. 

If they pass, as expected, they’ll head across the hall to the Texas House, which has made clear it’s not motivated by a speedy timetable. 

Senators also announced that several committees would hold public hearings Friday, including on the controversial “bathroom bill” that has yet to be filed. 

The House State Affairs committee on Wednesday approved sunset legislation of its own — House Bill 1 by Round Rock Republican Larry Gonzales — which would leave the five state agencies open for another two years. It’s unclear how soon that bill will head to the full chamber.

The House would also need to pass House Bill 2 to fund the agencies.

Andy Duehren contributed to this report. 

Posted in Latest, State | Comments Off on Senate gives early OK to must-pass “sunset” legislation

Licensing director is seventh official out at troubled Texas liquor agency

Pictured second from left is liquor lobbyist Dewey Brackin. Next to him, in the center, is Amy Harrison, licensing director at the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. The photo was taken in San Antonio at a conference of the National Conference of State Liquor Administrators. Brackin forwarded the photo to Harrison with the caption, "Feeling no pain ..."

Licensing Director Amy Harrison is the seventh official out at the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission since April. TABC spokesman Chris Porter said Friday Harrison “separated” from the agency Wednesday.

Jo Ann Joseph, previously the deputy director of licensing, will act as licensing director until a decision is made about Harrison’s permanent replacement, Porter said.

Harrison helped oversee the creation of a controversial flyer depicting agency honchos partying during out-of-state junkets. Her departure comes less than a week after the acting executive director abruptly quit, saying he did not want to participate in the “termination” of Harrison.

“I believe you are a good man who faces a very challenging situation and who must make some difficult decisions,” the acting executive director wrote in a letter to TABC Chairman Kevin Lilly. “However my conscience will not allow me to take part in the termination of Amy Harrison from the commission.”

The TABC has seen a spate of departures since The Texas Tribune began reporting a series of stories about the agency, including lavish trips officials took to out-of-state resorts, questionable use of peace officer status by agency brass, and failures to accurately maintain records of state-owned vehicles.

Gov. Greg Abbott tapped Lilly to clean up the agency’s mess. And on Tuesday, a decorated military officer and practicing lawyer, Adrian Bentley Nettles, was picked to head TABC after the acting executive director’s departure. 

Posted in Latest, State | Comments Off on Licensing director is seventh official out at troubled Texas liquor agency

New executive director appointed to troubled Texas liquor agency

Bentley Nettles, a decorated military officer and practicing lawyer, was appointed executive director of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. 

A lawyer with a lengthy military background has been tapped to clean up the embattled Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, after a series of controversies and high-level departures at the agency.

TABC commissioners appointed Adrian Bentley Nettles, a decorated military officer and practicing lawyer, to head the Texas liquor agency after a closed-door session on Tuesday.

Nettles will replace Sherry Cook, who announced in April she would step down from the executive directorship amid a series of spending controversies at the TABC.

“Brigadier General Bentley Nettles is a tested leader whose integrity, skills and experience, in both the military and the private sector, make him the ideal choice to get the TABC back on track,” Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement. “As a highly decorated military officer, and Texas lawyer, General Nettles has dedicated his life to serving Texans and his country, and I am confident he will continue to be a dedicated public servant in his new role. I have no doubt that his steady hand will restore trust in the agency, and I look forward to working with him in his new role.”

Nettles was released from active duty in 2015 and now has a law office in Bryan, focused on assisting veterans with issues related to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, estate planning, Medicaid and small business. Over the course of his military career, he was awarded 24 awards and badges, including a Purple Heart.

TABC Chairman Kevin Lilly said six candidates were interviewed for the executive director position on Tuesday. Lilly praised Nettles’ leadership, strong legal background, character and history of public service. “I think he’s a great American and a great Texan and his history of public service is unblemished,” he added in a brief interview Tuesday.

Lilly was tapped by Abbott, who has expressed public concern about TABC, to reform the agency. After Cook announced she would step down, Abbott said in a tweet, “It’s time to clean house from regulators not spending taxpayer money wisely.” He added, “This is a good start.”

Robert Saenz, executive chief of field operations, will serve as acting executive director until Nettles can take over, likely in three to four weeks. Julia Allen, an assistant general counsel at the agency, will serve as acting general counsel.

Six high-level officials have left TABC in the past few months, including Ed Swedberg, who became acting executive director after Cook’s departure. He quit Friday after a few weeks on the job.

The TABC has seen a spate of departures since The Texas Tribune began reporting a series of stories about the agency, including lavish trips officials took to out-of-state resorts, questionable use of peace officer status by agency brass, and failures to accurately maintain records of state-owned vehicles.

Since the Tribune began its reporting, Texas lawmakers have also voted to ban most out-of-state travel for agency personnel.

In June, the Tribune reported that the TABC tried to cancel every permit held by Spec’s liquor stores or fine the retailer up to $713 million. In a blunt ruling, a panel of judges said the TABC failed to prove any serious infractions made by Spec’s and recommended that no fines be imposed on the Houston-based liquor store chain.

Besides Swedberg and Cook, the agency’s general counsel, chief of enforcement and head of internal affairs have all left the agency since the beginning of July.

When Swedberg quit on Friday, he said he did not want to participate in the “termination” of another high-ranking official, Licensing Director Amy Harrison. Harrison, who helped oversee the creation of a controversial flyer depicting agency honchos partying during out-of-state junkets, still had her job Tuesday, TABC spokesman Chris Porter said.

Additional reporting by Jay Root.

Posted in Latest, State | Comments Off on New executive director appointed to troubled Texas liquor agency