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Landing or Launching?

There are lily pads and launch pads in Texas government, and the Railroad Commission is a launch pad. Being a railroad commissioner is less an end than a means — a way to propel yourself into a better, higher-profile and more powerful job. Which is why a serious reform effort is afoot.

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Texas has three railroad commissioners, who are elected statewide. They regulate oil and gas, which you’d never know from their title. But that’s not the only reason there’s a serious effort afoot to change the agency’s name and replace those officeholders with part-time gubernatorial appointees, as there are at most of the state’s other regulatory agencies. Another, bigger reason is that there are lily pads and launch pads in Texas government, and the Railroad Commission is a launch pad. Being a railroad commissioner is less an end than a means — a way to propel yourself into a better, higher-profile and more powerful job.

The Texas Railroad Commission was established at the end of the 19th century as an attempt to regulate trains, but it morphed into the biggest player in world energy pricing. OPEC was modeled on the agency’s control of Texas oil well production, which limited supply and kept up prices worldwide.

The commissioners serve six-year terms, staggered so that only one is on the ballot every two years, and they regulate oil and gas, pipelines, surface mining and gas utilities in the state. Texas isn’t the center of the energy production universe anymore, like it was in the middle of the last century, but commissioners still have the industry’s full attention — and they often use it, and the money that follows, as the base of support for moving up the political ladder.

Two of the last three state comptrollers, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, a Republican, and John Sharp, a Democrat, started their statewide runs at the commission. Tony Garza ran an unsuccessful race for attorney general, got appointed by Gov. George W. Bush as secretary of state and then ran successfully for the Railroad Commission. After Bush moved from the little white house in Austin to the big White House in Washington, he named Garza the U.S. ambassador to Mexico.

Charles Matthews left to become a university chancellor. Kent Hance did, too, a few years after leaving the commission in an unsuccessful run for governor. Bob Krueger was tapped by Gov. Ann Richards to fill Lloyd Bentsen’s U.S. Senate seat and later became ambassador to Burundi.

Two of the current commissioners — Michael Williams and Elizabeth Ames Jones — were in the running for the U.S. Senate until earlier this year when it became apparent that Kay Bailey Hutchison would remain in that seat while running for governor. The speculation about whether Hutchison will seek another term in 2012 feeds, in turn, speculation that they and a herd of others will be in the running again soon.

Jones’ website for Senate is still up, and her stated intentions are clear: “Principled, Proven, Conservative Leadership for Texas in 2012.”

Williams is barely subtler. The last post on his still-active Senate site is the statement he issued in March, when Hutchison announced she wasn’t quitting. It includes this line: “I have said from the beginning, I will be a candidate for this seat whenever it comes up.”

The third commissioner is incoming, David Porter, a Republican who only announced his staff this week. It’s too early to discern his future plans, but this could in fact be it for him: He’s an accountant who’s worked in the oil patch for years, first in Midland and now in Giddings, and this might satisfy his public ambitions. And unlike his colleagues, he wasn’t the sort of candidate who attracts notice.

Porter’s surprise election is, in fact, an argument for getting commissioners off the ballot. In the Republican primary in March, Victor Carrillo, the incumbent, didn’t mount much of a campaign, and neither did Porter. Republican voters chose the new guy for no apparent reason. Carrillo maintained later that his Hispanic name hurt him in the Republican face-off, a charge Porter dismissed as “sour grapes,” but both would have to agree that no one was really paying attention to the substance of the race.

It’s the money, however, that bothers reformers the most. In proposing to replace the elected officials with appointees, the Sunset Advisory Commission, a legislative agency, cited the conflicts that have made these gigs so attractive to ambitious politicians: “Critics would argue that elected Commissioners pose a conflict for the agency’s regulatory role, as the costs of a statewide campaign often rely on campaign contributions from the regulated industry.”

In other words: This pad is made for launching. Taking it off the ballot and changing its name may be the only way to turn it back into a lily pad.

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Energy Environment State government Ann Richards Campaign finance State agencies Texas Railroad Commission