Most people who pay attention to such things expect little from freshman members of the Texas Legislature. That first session generally is spent getting the lay of the land, rather than accomplishing an awful lot.

State Rep. Mayes Middleton said early on he would be the exception to that rule, and so far he’s stuck to his word.

Granted, it remains to be seen whether any of Middleton’s initiatives come to anything, and there are good questions about whether some of them should, but he’s already given people in his district a lot to talk and argue about, and that in itself is something of an achievement.

It was Middleton, some will recall, who broached the idea of Bolivar Peninsula moving out of Galveston County’s jurisdiction and into Chambers County. The idea apparently caught some Galveston County officials by surprise, but also drew a huge crowd of peninsula residents wanting to at least talk about it.

And it’s not a crazy idea, given that the peninsula is geographically connected to Chambers County. It might even make financial sense for this county.

Most recently, Middleton filed House Bill 1776, which would compel the Port of Houston Authority to develop land it owns on Pelican Island or sell it.

In doing so, he hit on a long-time sore spot among some island officials. It’s the notion the Port of Houston Authority is sitting on valuable Pelican Island land, with no intention to develop it, just to keep it from being developed to benefit the Port of Galveston.

The Houston port authority says that’s not true.

In a statement to the Daily News, a Port of Houston spokeswoman said the port still has hopes for its Pelican Island properties.

“We continue to pursue opportunities, welcome discussions, work with local officials and other partners regarding this property,” Lisa Ashley said.

“Collaboratively, we have explored varied development opportunities and other considerations, including improvements to transportation corridors for that land, and we will continue to consider viable possibilities.”

Whether there’s any truth to that conspiracy theory or not, Middleton’s bill raises some questions worth discussion.

House Bill 1776 would require the Port of Houston Authority to substantially develop its Pelican Island property by 2022, or sell it to someone who would begin paying property taxes on the land, Middleton said.

The authority, like all governments, is not required to pay ad valorem taxes on land it owns.

Middleton seems convinced the port authority is holding the land to prevent competitive development.

“Taxpayer money has been used to hurt free enterprise,” Middleton told a Daily News reporter recently. “It’s obvious that over the past 20 years the only reason the Port of Houston bought that land was to cut off competition from Galveston.”

The Port of Houston Authority owns about 1,100 acres on Pelican Island.

The authority purchased the land in 2000 from Galveston billionaire George Mitchell for about $6 million and has talked about building a container terminal there, but never moved past talking.

One interesting question is whether the legislature could legally make such a use-it-or-lose-it demand on a somewhat autonomous government entity. Another is whether it should, even if it can.

A better question is who might buy the land if the port authority were compelled to sell.

The most interesting question, though, is the core question raised in Middleton’s bill — should a deep-pocketed arm of government be allowed to hold onto substantial tracts of land that otherwise might be generating tax revenue?

That is a question worth discussion.

• Michael A. Smith

Michael A. Smith: 409-683-5206; michael.smith@galvnews.com

Editor

(9) comments

Susan Fennewald

The Port of Houston should pay taxes on it. Outside of their own jurisdiction, they should be required to pay taxes.

Don Schlessinger

[thumbup][thumbup][thumbup]

Christy Callahan

The way it is currently written, this bill would prevent the Port of Galveston from being eligible to buy this land. Unless they make some major changes to it in committee, this could hurt our port much more than having empty land.

George Croix

"....should a deep-pocketed arm of government be allowed to hold onto substantial tracts of land that otherwise might be generating tax revenue?"

Like, maybe, state and national parks, which with the proper legislation passed and enacted could be sold off and developed into commercial or housing venues?
Or.....
Some future legislature might decide this area needs a new Dairy Queen on Teichman Road more than it needs a newspaper in the digital age and mandate the change to Dip Cones over headlines or lose the property to someone who will develop what the State wants.....
The right or wrong or inconvenient and obstructive merits or not of this particular issue, be careful what is wished for, and even more careful with the wording of any changes......

George Croix

Since this is about a gov't entity not paying local property taxes, then perhaps Mayes should, rather than get into the who-should-own-what business for one specific area, get into legislation for this one specific area that requires the property owner TO start paying local taxes....come up with some specific targeted reason for that, just like this use it or lose it stuff is.....tie it to proximity to strategic industry or come up with some other idea.
One would have as much chance of passing as another, and if the latter made it, both sides would retain what is claimed to be most important to them.....

Wayne Holt

Not only that, George, but having a guaranteed tax source paying in has got to be less risky--and laborious--than going through the process of finding appropriate development and then fending off the hat-in-hand proposals for economic development breaks.

Talk about a bird in the hand...a guaranteed tax revenue stream has got to look better for Galveston. The only thing that is clearly unacceptable is to have a large chunk of land sitting there not contributing to revenues while simultaneously blocking a potential competitive advantage we might have.

Rep. Middleton, if you're looking at this, how about it? Call it the Susan and George Tax Responsibility Act...

Wayne Holt

BTW regarding Port of Houston's "welcoming discussions" about possible future use: they've had 18 years to move from chatting it up to building it up. Take a look what the Port of Houston has developed at their location in the Ship Channel in the past 20 years if you want to see what serious port development looks like.

No matter what the solution is, Rep. Middleton looks like he nailed it when it comes to a big part of the reason that land on Pelican Island still looks like it's 1840 over there.

When the port went looking for a spokesperson, they must have made it a top priority to be able to tell some really great jokes with a straight face.

George Croix

Call it what it is, either way.....
Gored Ox #______ - Politically Motivated Relief and Vote Pandering Act
(fill in the blank - sequential numbering would make it easier to find these things) [beam][beam]

Azure Bevington

I would like to take exception to the statement that a "huge crowd of peninsula residents wanting to at least talk about" switching counties, this is inaccurate and makes it appear that we are open to this issue. Myself and many of the others who attended that meeting (including those with second homes who have no vote in the matter in either county, but who's services are stake), were not there to "talk about it", we were there to oppose it, and get answers as to why this was something that was being brought up at all with all the other issues we currently face on Bolivar.

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