- Jeremy Schwartz American-Statesman Staff
A bill that would have given teeth to the state’s anemic inspection system for farmworker housing died in the Texas House on Thursday, never reaching the floor for a vote before a midnight deadline.
House Bill 2365, authored by Rep. Ramon Romero, Jr., D-Fort Worth, unanimously passed the House Urban Affairs Committee in April, but could not clear the House Calendars Committee. A Senate version of the bill never received a hearing in the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Water and Rural Affairs.
Though state law requires that facilities intended to house migrant farmworkers be inspected and licensed, meeting minimum standards of cleanliness and safety, a 2016 American-Statesman investigation found that Texas’ unfunded inspection program ensures licensed housing for just a tiny fraction of farmworkers.
In 2015, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs spent less than $2,500 to conduct about 40 inspections of housing facilities provided by growers and labor contractors, most clustered in cotton-growing regions of the Panhandle. As a result, an estimated 9 in 10 Texas migrant farmworkers lack access to licensed housing that meets state and federal standards.
The bills would have required inspectors to be more proactive in finding unlicensed housing, made it easier for farmworkers to submit complaints about substandard housing and raised penalties against housing operators who skirt the law.
Another bill that would have required the housing department to study the availablity and condition of farmworker housing in the state also died Thursday.
“I don’t think anyone can debate how important this is,” Romero said Thursday after it became clear the bill was doomed this session. “We’ve fallen so behind now in our respect for who these workers really are … Hopefully the (housing) department got a wakeup call.”
The Statesman investigation found that the department had not levied a single penalty since 2005 even after multiple failed inspections at some facilities.
“I’m extremely disappointed we weren’t able to make progress on these bills,” said Sen. Jose Rodriguez, sponsor of the Senate version. “It’s just not right. It’s a shame.”
Rodriguez was still hopeful that the Legislature would adopt a budget rider requiring the state housing department to spend what it collects through fees and fines on compliance efforts. “I believe it has a good chance,” he said.
And both Romero and Rodriguez said they hope to revive the bills if a special legislative session is called.