Three of seven Republicans vying for a seat on the Texas Railroad Commission favor tightening at least one regulation — on the commissioners themselves.
Ron Hale, Weston Martinez and Lance Christian — candidates in a crowded race for the three-member panel known for overseeing oil and gas producers — say they would support a proposal barring commissioners from accepting political donations from parties that have business before the commission.
“We need to make sure we don’t even have the appearance of being in the pocket of industry,” Martinez, a Republican activist who is on the Texas Real Estate Commission, said Monday at a candidate forum hosted by The Texas Tribune and KLRU-TV in Austin.
Such a proposal is not currently on the table, but the idea is not unheard of.
In 2013, the idea surfaced in a slate of recommendations from the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, the legislative body that periodically reviews how state agencies operate. Texas lawmakers that year ultimately rejected legislation that would have adopted the recommendations.
On Monday, Texas Tribune Editor-in-Chief and CEO Evan Smith, the forum’s moderator, asked candidates whether they would support the proposal if it re-emerges in 2017, when the agency is again up for review.
Hale, who runs a security firm for oil and gas producers, and Lance Christian, a Railroad Commission geologist, said they agreed with Martinez.
But their opponents weren’t so sure, exemplifying the wide differences between the candidates hoping to replace Commissioner David Porter, who dropped his re-election bid in a surprise announcement last December.
John Greytok, a longtime Austin attorney and lobbyist, suggested that some sort of ethics reform was needed, but he didn’t think that barring certain donations was the right answer.
The three remaining candidates — former state Rep. Wayne Christian, Gary Gates and Doug Jeffrey — said that such a proposal would threaten donors’ First Amendment rights. But ensuring that such donations remain transparent, they each said, would help the public scope out any undue industry influence at the commission.
“I believe donations are a form of free speech,” said Gates, a wealthy real estate agent and cattle rancher.
Jeffrey, a U.S. Air Force veteran who has some petroleum industry investments, agreed but also suggested that limiting donations from certain sectors could put candidates with fewer resources — like him — at a disadvantage.
“If we did that, it would mean that the only people that could get elected would be millionaires,” he said in an interview.
Industry contributions have not played a major role in the Republican race thus far.
Lance Christian, Weston Martinez and Gary Gates reported raising no money at all from Jan 1 through Jan. 21, according to Texas Ethics Commission filings. Gates, however loaned himself $2 million.
Hale reported raising $1,240 during that period. None of it came from petroleum producers.
Of the $5,850 in contributions Greytok reported, $500 came from Midland oilman Clayton Williams Jr. That appeared to be the only industry donation.
Of the $6,250 Jeffrey reported raising in January, $500 came from oil and gas producers — Randy and Virginia Riggins, of Spicewood.
Wayne Christian saw the biggest industry donation: $30,000 from Terry Bailey, an oilman from his hometown of Center. Christian reported raising a total of $30,125 during the period.
Beyond overseeing oil and gas producers, the Railroad Commission regulates coal and uranium mining, pipeline safety and natural gas utilities. It no longer deals with trains.