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Texas Senate advances limits on farmland sales to China, other countries

By Robert Downen, The Texas Tribune

Texas Senate advances limits on farmland sales to China, other countries” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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The Texas Senate on Tuesday gave initial approval to a bill that limits the sale of Texas farmland to citizens and entities associated with China and several other countries.

Senate Bill 147, approved 18-12, restricts purchases of agricultural land, timberland and oil and gas rights by entities associated with any country that “poses a risk to the national security of the United States” — as designated by three consecutive annual threat assessment analyses by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

A second Senate vote is needed before the bill is sent to the House.

The legislation also allows the Texas attorney general’s office to investigate potential violations and refer cases to courts for divestment proceedings if a “reasonable suspicion” arises that the buyer is associated with one of the designated countries.

The bill passed Tuesday was a significantly watered-down version of an earlier proposal that sought an outright ban on land sales to dual citizens and businesses associated with China, Iran, North Korea and Russia. SB 147 was softened after months of outcry from Asian American groups and others who said it would make it impossible for dual citizens and other immigrants to buy homes or start businesses.

On Tuesday, the bill’s sponsor, Brenham Republican Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, put forward several amendments that she said were aimed at those concerns while protecting national security, including new language that limits the restrictions to specific types of land and applies to purchases, not leases.

“This ensures that we strengthen our food security, our energy security and our national security,” Kolkhorst said after roughly two hours of debate. “…You can come and buy your company. You can have your restaurant.”

Kolkhorst has said SB 147 builds on legislation from 2021, when state lawmakers unanimously voted to ban Texas businesses and government officials from making infrastructure deals with interests from the four countries. That legislation was filed in response to a Xinjiang-based real estate tycoon’s purchase of roughly 140,000 acres for a wind farm in Del Rio, a small border town near Laughlin Air Force Base.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Chinese investors own less than 1% of total foreign-held acreage in the United States. Investors from Russia, Iran and North Korea collectively own less than 3,000 acres.

Tuesday’s amendments marked the second time Kolkhorst has softened the bill’s language. In March, she clarified that the proposal would not apply to dual citizens or houses that were homesteaded and accepted substitute language that would have required potential homebuyers to disclose their affiliations with such countries within 10 days of initiating purchase agreements.

Those changes, which have since been dropped, did little to assuage concerns among opponents, who said it would increase discrimination by associating all Asian Americans — one of the state’s fastest-growing population segments — with the Chinese government. Moreover, they said, the bill’s enhanced oversight provisions could dissuade home sellers from engaging with potential Asian American buyers because of concerns that they are associated with China — and a sale would thus be subject to legal scrutiny.

Despite the objections, earlier versions of Kolkhorst’s bill drew support from top Texas GOP figures, including Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and Gov. Greg Abbott, who said he would sign the bill.

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