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Chambers Settle Railroad Commission Squabble

The Railroad Commission of Texas is set to go under intense legislative scrutiny next session after all, under an agreement by state House and Senate lawmakers.

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The Railroad Commission of Texas is set to go under intense legislative scrutiny next session after all, under an agreement by state House and Senate lawmakers. The agency won't get a six-year reprieve from that process – an earlier prospect that had rankled its critics.

The dispute centered on House Bill 3123, a measure that delays deadlines for certain state agencies to undergo a "sunset" review — an wide-ranging analysis of their operation. Both chambers on Sunday settled on a version of the measure that won’t dramatically delay the Railroad Commission's next review by the Sunset Advisory Commission, the body of lawmakers that periodically weighs the effectiveness of state agencies.

The agreement ends a complicated disagreement that snuck up on Capitol observers in the waning days of the legislative session, which is set to end Monday, and raised questions about whether lawmakers were failing to properly scrutinize how the increasingly powerful agency toes the line between industry champion and watchdog.

The curiously named Railroad Commission (which also regulates mining, pipeline safety and natural gas utilities, but not railroads) has undergone the sunset process during the last two legislative sessions, but it escaped a major overhaul both times when its three commissioners objected to reviewers’ proposals.

The short saga started on Friday.

That’s when a conference committee of top House and Senate lawmakers hashed out a deal that would have delayed the review of the Railroad Commission until 2023 – six years later than the current schedule. 

The bill would delay sunset deadlines for a number of state agencies large and small, including the Texas Education Agency and the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. The conference committee – chaired by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, and Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo – added the Railroad Commission, though it wasn’t included in either chamber’s version.

That change angered at least some of the agency’s critics, including those who argue that regulators should do more to address the effects of urban drilling and wastewater disposal wells – including levying more penalties on industry. 

“The Railroad Commission of Texas needs fixing badly. Its antiquated name alone tells everybody that,” Cyrus Reed, conservation director with the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, said in a statement late Friday. "To suggest that we don’t need to bother looking under the hood of this vital state agency until eight years from now is outrageous.”

Nelson said the Railroad Commission provision was added simply to accommodate the Sunset Advisory Commission's schedule, and on Saturday, the Senate voted to approve that version.

"The Sunset schedule was too full for the upcoming cycle, and we needed to move some agencies ahead on the schedule," she said in a statement. 

But House lawmakers – led by Rep. Jim Keffer – objected early Sunday afternoon, instead asking his colleagues to approve the version that it originally sent to the committee.

The Eastland Republican said his decision late in the session to stand down in a conflict between cities and natural gas utilities was premised on the idea that the commission would go under the microscope in 2017.

"So cities will be in an unfortunate situation, and not on a level playing field with utilities," he said.

Keffer and other critics said the agency needed a fresh review after it wriggled free of an overhaul in 2011 and 2013.

In 2013, lawmakers rejected a wide range of Sunset Commission recommendations, including changing the commission’s name, shortening the period in which commissioners can fundraise, barring commissioners from accepting contributions from parties with business before the commission, expanding its recusal policy and requiring commissioners to resign before running for another office. At that time, the Legislature set the commission’s next review date at 2017.

Some House lawmakers defended the commission’s recent record.

Rep. Larry Gonzales, a member of the conference committee, praised the Railroad Commission's leadership, saying it used its dollars efficiently.

“What we see from the Railroad Commission is exactly what we expect to see from an agency,” the Round Rock Republican, who also chairs the committee that oversees that agency’s budget, said on Saturday. “The leadership there has been fantastic.”

On Sunday, Price defended the conference committee’s decision to push back the commission's review.

"We can’t keep reviewing an agency over and over just because legislation does not move," he said.

The House chose instead to agree to an earlier version of the legislation that had already passed the Senate. The action had the effect of axing the changes made by the conference committee. The bill goes immediately to the governor's desk, according to House Chief Clerk Robert Haney.

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