Texas Politics

Change more than Railroad Commission’s name



I n 1986, then-state Sen. John Sharp was running for a seat on the Texas Railroad Commission. He and campaign manager Greg Hartman were looking around for issues.

They’d found that there was public concern about railroad safety. So Sharp — now the chancellor of Texas A&M University – called for railroad safety in his campaign. And he was elected to the Texas Railroad Commission.

Never mind that by 1986, the Railroad Commission had nothing to do with railroad safety. That and most dealings with railroads had moved on to other agencies.

The Railroad Commission’s duties since at least the 1930s have centered on regulating production and transportation of oil and gas.

The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, which works to streamline and trim dead wood from state agencies, is recommending changing the agency’s name to the Texas Energy Resources Commission.

Good idea, at least so far as truth in packaging goes. But the Sunset Commission’s recommendations could also include other changes.

One would be to change from having three elected commissioners to one – either elected or appointed. The commission in recent decades has evolved from a retirement spot for older politicians to a staging area for ambitious new ones. It didn’t start out that way. The Railroad Commission was a populist response to farmers feeling gouged by freight rates.

Jim Hogg made that a big part of his successful race for governor in 1890. He got the Railroad Commission set up in 1891, through a constitutional amendment, as a three-member appointive body.

Hogg wanted it appointive rather than elected, to keep the railroad industry from dominating the commission by using its money to get its favorites elected.

But for some odd lack of political foresight, Hogg then failed to name a representative of the farmers’ organization as one of the three members on the Commission. So the farmers drove through a constitutional amendment in 1894, which made the commissioners elective rather than appointive.

So, the commission has been a good place to raise political money from a well-heeled industry, to build some name identification, to have a podium and a staff, and – because the commissioners have six-year terms – a place in two out of three election years to try a race for something else without having to give up the commission seat.

In the last three decades, about half the people who’ve served on the commission have run for other offices:

•Democrat Buddy Temple ran for governor in 1982, and lost. •Democrat Sharp ran for comptroller in 1990, and won.

•Republican Kent Hance, appointed in 1987 to a vacancy, ran for governor in 1990. He lost.

•Democrat Robert Krueger lost U.S. Senate races in 1978 and 1984. He was elected to succeed Hance on the Commission in 1990. But then-Gov. Ann Richards appointed him to a U.S. Senate vacancy in 1993. Krueger then lost a special election to Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison, who kept the Senate seat.

•Republican Carole Keeton Strayhorn ran for comptroller in 1998 and won.

•Republican Barry Williamson ran for attorney general in 1998 and lost.

•Michael Williams, who left the commission to run for the U.S. Senate, then backed off to a race for the U.S. House. He lost.

•Elizabeth Ames Jones, who also wanted to run for the U.S. Senate, but backed off to the state senate. She lost.

There have been efforts to make changes for the commission.

A bill a few years ago to prohibit commissioners from running for another office during their term, or at least having to resign to do so, did not pass.

Another bill would have replaced the threemember elective commission with a single elected commissioner. That didn’t go anywhere, either.

In 1996, Democratic former state Sen. Hector Uribe pledged in a campaign for a railroad commission seat that he would seek to abolish the commission, or at least replace it with one appointive commissioner. Uribe lost.

Other proposals have included doing away with the Railroad Commission entirely, and merging its duties with the Public Utility Commission and a few other agencies.

And while many of these ideas might make sense, don’t look for much change. The name, maybe; but the duties and form of leadership, probably not.

The reason is that the body is run by three politicians, albeit the current membership a little less political than at some other times. For the administrative structure to change, you’d probably have to have the administrators in favor of it.

In the meantime, the industry control that Gov. Hogg had hoped to avoid is in place today – even if it’s oil and gas rather than railroads.

DAVE MCNEELEY is political columnist. You may contact him at davemcneely111@gmail.com or (512)458-2963.

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