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