HARLINGEN, RGV – Port of Harlingen officials say they are disappointed their top legislative agenda item was vetoed by Gov. Greg Abbott.

The legislation, authored by state Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., focused the administration of the port’s tax-raising powers and called for greater oversight. The legislation was tagged onto a bill by state Rep. Ryan Guillen late in the session – HB 1053 – which focused on helping Willacy County Navigation District with economic development.

In his veto proclamation, Abbott found fault with the Willacy County aspect of HB 1053 and the part dealing with the Port of Harlingen.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott

Abbott said:

“Pursuant to Article IV, Section 14, of the Texas Constitution, I, Greg Abbott, Governor of Texas, do hereby disapprove of and veto House Bill No. 1053 as passed by the Eighty-Sixth Texas Legislature, Regular Session, because of the following objections: 

“House Bill 1053 has two fatal flaws:

“First, it would exempt the Willacy County Navigation District from competitive bidding requirements applicable to all other navigation districts, allowing it to donate, exchange, convey, sell, or lease a real property interest for less than reasonable market value and without providing public notice. This exception to the general laws of our State would unnecessarily undermine the tenets of transparency.

“Second, it would authorize the Port of Harlingen Authority to impose an ad valorem tax. The end-of-session addition of this power was not properly vetted through the legislative process and did not receive a public hearing. While likely not the intent of this bill’s author or sponsor, this would set a bad example for how special districts can evade statutory and legislative oversight in the future.

“Since the Eighty-Sixth Texas Legislature, Regular Session, by its adjournment has prevented the return of this bill, I am filing these objections in the office of the Secretary of State and giving notice thereof by this public proclamation according to the aforementioned constitutional provision. 

“In testimony whereof, I have signed my name officially and caused the Seal of the State to be affixed hereto at Austin, this 15th day of June, 2019.”

Guillen, naturally, was disappointed with the governor’s veto.

“My bill was kind of like an economic development bill for the Willacy County Navigation District, for Port Mansfield. It would have allowed them to do many things like economic development districts and cities across the state can do,” Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, said.

State Representative Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City.

“We negotiated the language with members in committees throughout the process and we were surprised at the end when we got the veto. I think it would have been very beneficial for Willacy County.”

As for the Port of Harlingen component in the bill, Guillen said: “They came to me and told me about it. I was okay with it. I did not know anybody had a problem with it. I think it was misunderstood as well. I do not think it is a new tax. It is replacing one. I did not see the problem with it.”

Guillen added: “We wish they (the Governor’s staff) had talked to us if they had a concern. I am sure we could have worked something out.”

Port of Harlingen

The Port of Harlingen is a shallow draft barge port that is part of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, which provides over 1,300 miles of protected waterway. Its ship channel is maintained to a width of 125 feet and a depth of 12 feet with a turning basin that is 400 feet wide and 14 feet deep. It is supplied by the Arroyo Colorado, a fresh water river. Terminal docks and other facilities ease shipments into and out of the Port.

Like Rep. Guillen, Port of Harlingen Director Walker Smith was also disappointed Gov. Abbott vetoed HB 1053.

“We were disappointed. We are still operating and hopefully can get something done with the next legislature,” Smith said.

Walker Smith

Smith explained how the Lucio/Guillen legislation would have helped the Port of Harlingen.

“We already have the authority to be able to collect a tax which we are currently doing. However, there is some confusion in the Water Code and we were just trying to say that the Port of Harlingen is responsible for levying and certifying the tax rate and Cameron County is responsible for collecting it for us. This is the case now, we were just trying to make it a little clearer and bring some transparency to it.”

One of the provisions Sen. Lucio added to the bill was to expand the Port of Harlingen board of directors from three to five. Lucio said he wanted to see greater transparency. Smith said the Port of Harlingen was happy enough to see the size of the board increase from three to five members.

Currently, the Port of Harlingen has a tax rate of three cents per $100 property valuation. There are approximately 47,000 properties in the port’s district. 

Smith explained why the port’s tax-raising abilities are important.

“The tax is hugely important for the maintenance and upkeep of the district because when you add water to any sort of infrastructure and it creates all sorts of issues. We are constantly lobbying the Army Corps of Engineers to get funds to maintain our channel, the Harlingen channel up to the port. That is always a struggle and battle that we fight because we are considered a low-use port. If we cannot keep it maintained, we cannot keep the commerce coming in. It is hugely important.

The main products shipped in through the Port of Harlingen are refined fuels such as gasoline and ethanol and sand aggregates. The main products shipped out are raw sugar and fertilizers. 

“We are at about 1.5 million tons right now,” Smith said. “For water boarding cargo we are at about 850,000 tons. The total tonnage for road, rail and water is a 1.5 million tons.”

Asked how well the Port of Harlingen is doing, Smith said:

“We are doing great. We are breaking records leaps and bounds. Traffic is up tremendously and there is not stopping in sight with the growth we are experiencing right now.”