From StateImpact Texas
The Railroad Commission wields a big stick in Texas. It regulates the state’s most profitable industry — oil and gas — and all Texans elect its three commissioners. One thing the Railroad Commission doesn’t control, however, is railroads.
A bill debated at a Senate Natural Resources Committee meeting Tuesday would give the commission a new name, the Texas Energy Resources Commission, and implement other reforms as part of the so-called sunset review process.
Few oppose a more apt title for the agency, but wrapped up in the legislation are also rules restricting campaign contributions for commissioners and their ability to run for a different office while overseeing the commission.
What “we’d like to see changed in the bill are the resign-to-run [provision] and the two ethics financial issues,” Commissioner Christi Craddick said during testimony. “But otherwise I’d like to see this bill move.”
The legislation, Senate Bill 212, by state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, resembles a previous sunset review of the Railroad Commission that didn’t pass in the last legislative session that would forbid certain campaign contributions. For instance, commissioners could not accept donations from a party involved in a contested case hearing. It would also limit campaign contributions to the 17 months before an election and 30 days after.
Barry Smitherman, the commission's chairman, said during testimony that the campaign restrictions were "tricky" because commissioners are elected statewide, the state is big, travel is necessary and commissioners must raise money.
State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who sits on the natural resources committee, said the Sunset Advisory Commission had thought hard about how to put reasonable limits on the campaign financing.
"Sitting there for a six-year term, being able to raise unlimited amounts of money from the industry that they regulate, there clearly is a perception problem," Ellis said.
The Railroad Commission should be subject to different restrictions, Nichols said, because the commissioners serve six-year terms, they regulate a specific industry and they set rates.
Similar sunset legislation for the commission originating in the House, HB 2166, by state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, recently passed out of committee, but was largely stripped of campaign and ethics reform, according to Texas Energy Report. That bill could end up competing with the Senate bill discussed Tuesday.
Commissioners were concerned about another aspect of the bill that would require automatic resignation if they chose to run for another office more than 18 months before the end of their term.
There has been a perception that the office is a stepping stone to run for higher office, Nichols said.
Craddick said such a rule, if it were to be implemented, should apply to all the statewide elected officials, not just the Railroad Commission.
The Railroad Commission is one of the oldest state agencies in Texas, dating back to 1891, But it hasn’t regulated railroads since 2005. For reasons of transparency, Nichols said, the agency’s name should reflect its duties.
No one testified specifically against the name-change provision. Craddick suggested the more succinct Texas Energy Commission. State Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, who worked on the sunset review that failed in the last legislative session, also suggested a new name.
"I'd like to change it to Texas Department on Oil and Gas because it sounds cool ... TDOG," Hegar said.