Analysis: Port Legislative Agenda Facing Stiff Opposition And Reasonable Objections

Port of Corpus Christi (Mat Pierce/Getty Images)

Matt Pierce and John Kelley

The Port of Corpus Christi went to Austin on Tuesday and brought the attacks in support of their legislative agenda that is opposed by nearly everybody except those who have a stake in northwest Nueces County.

Port Commissioner Charlie Zahn used charm and wit to attempt to schmooze members of the House Transportation Committee who heard more opposition than favor towards the Port’s legislative agenda Tuesday evening. 

Zahn had to do something because it was pretty clear where a majority of those who testified stood on the bill—they were against it. Arguments were made about how the Port of Corpus Christi was once a good neighbor and friend of the community, but has under current leadership become much more of an adversary to the community and a thorn in the side of those that they are supposed to be in solidarity with. 

House Bill 4640, which was introduced by Robstown area Representative Abel Herrero, relates directly to the powers and duties of the Port of Corpus Christi Authority and would allow the port to lease land to developers for local economic development in places like Robstown. That is something that Nueces County Judge Barbara Canales and other Democrats have been urging for some time now in order to secure the heavily Democratic base of the region. Port of Corpus Christi CEO Sean Strawbridge has also been in favor of the idea even though most local leaders disagree. 

It isn’t what the bill does now that is the problem, according to opponents. They say it is what they bill opens the proverbial door towards in the future—a port land grab. 

To say that the opposition to the idea is limited to political jurisdictions and residents isn’t exactly factual. Industry power players like Todd Staples, President of the Texas Oil and Gas Association voiced their concerns about the bill by saying that groups such as his just wanted a “robust conversation” about the best way to move forward. Staples made it clear in his testimony that the Texas Oil and Gas Association was not against anybody, including ports or Nueces County—they just wanted to hear something that was fair and was beneficial for everybody involved. 

Hector Rivero, President, CEO Texas Chemical Council and Association of Chemical Industry of Texas agreed. “We too support our ports, we support economic development in our regions, and we support Nueces County and the City of Corpus Christi,” Rivero said. “We just don’t want to see the fees that go for maritime operations to actually be diverted and used for real estate development.” 

As it stands, the Port of Corpus Christi could use money from those purposes towards economic development in terms of legal fees paid to lawyers, typical landlord style maintenance on entity owned properties and other subjective needs that could be considered for economic development purposes. That is money that could be put towards properly expanding the Port waterways and navigable canals which are needed to keep the port competitive on a global scale. But that doesn’t protect Robstown votes or the payouts to attorneys for the Port of Corpus Christi. 

Another power player who spoke in objection to the Port of Corpus Christi and the Nueces County position was Tony Bennet, of the Texas Manufacturers Association. Bennett, like Staples and Rivero opposed the bill as it is currently written for the same reasons. “We want to see language that says that fees and tariffs collected from industry would not be used for economic development.” 

But after all the objections walked in Charlie Zahn to try and cool things down. 

Zahn pointed out that unless the Port develops the land, the ad valorem taxes would be collected and that things like school budgets would not be impacted, a point that educators groups disagree with. But Zahn, doing what he felt as if he had to do, pressed on to imply that those groups were simply misinformed and that the Port and himself were the real victims of attack from opposition. Zahn refuted allegations that the Port of Corpus Christi had not, in recent years, been a good neighbor to the community by saying that they are transparent and open with their dealings. In fact, the Port of Corpus Christi has been just the opposite by contesting and opposing requests for open public records and serving as more of an obstructive body than a partner. On numerous occasions, the Port has ignored inquiry, sought legal opinions for basic Freedom of Information Act Requests and utilized nearly every stall tactic in the book to keep from being transparent. They never subject themselves to unscripted interviews, and they do in fact threaten groups to pull funding unless those groups agree to support the Port of Corpus Christi—all allegations that Zahn falsely denied takes place by maintaining that the Port of Corpus Christi is an open and transparent neighbor. 

Under a shaky voice, Zahn said “We feel like we are a good partner in the community.” 

Then the questioning from Rep. JM Lozano turned to the topic of removing competitive bidding. Lozano pointed out how HB 4640 has the provision for competitive bidding stricken out from the text of the bill, implying that the Port of Corpus Christi would be given the authority under the bill to go against the Constitution of the State of Texas. “That is stricken out and it’s a big red flag,” Rep. Lozano said. 

Zahn’ s response was bland, at best saying that he fully expected the Port to comply with competitive bidding practices. Democrat Chairman of the Transportation Committee, Rep. Terry Canales did his part to steer conversation away from what was clearly a political trap that Zahn and Port of Corpus Christi were not prepared to address in the setting. 

The biggest question is why this is even an issue? Supporters of the bill point towards economic development in the Robstown area of Nueces County, which does need an economic shot in the arm. But then again, the question is raised why Robstown? 

Robstown is a small community sitting on the fringes of Nueces County where there has traditionally been little development. While the Port of Corpus Christi and Nueces County officials have not explicitly said what plans they have, sources say that the overall plan deals with the idea of an inland port in the Robstown area and less focus would be given to things like restaurants and hotels. 

For Democrats who control Nueces County the stakes are high. They have been making promises to Robstown voters for years and could never get much done outside of a failing outlet mall, a largely unused baseball field and the Nueces County Fairgrounds, which does bring in a little revenue, but does very little in terms of job creation. An inland port would make sense if that is where the Port and Nueces County officials want to go with it. It also means more possible votes in their favor, which Democrats know they will likely need to retain their political footing in Nueces County. In short terms, Democrats are vote hunting and it seems like they are using the Port of Corpus Christi to do it—that doesn’t sound like ethics to most observers. 

In the end it is all about transparency from the Port of Corpus Christi and proving capable leadership among the current ranks—which is also in question. Port CEO Sean Strawbridge has made significant political contributions to Democrat candidates in recent cycles and that seems to point that the scheme has been in the works for at least some time. 

While it isn’t totally clear what the outcome will be, it is clear the opposition to the matter is stiff—especially from industry leaders who could easily take their business to other ports and regions. It has been done before—just ask Oscar Wyatt, who left Corpus Christi high and dry himself over similar disputes.

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