The long-awaited Sunset Bill of the Railroad Commission was released late yesterday, and it’s mostly what we’d expected, but not everything we’d hoped for.
- The Railroad Commission will be renamed the Texas Oil and Gas Commission
- It will be headed by one commissioner (down from 3) who will be elected every four years on the same cycle as Governor, Comptrollerm, Ag Commissioner, etc.
- Campaign finance reform: Commissioners and candidates for the commission can only raise money one year before an election and 30 days after.
- Moving contested hearings to the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH).
These are needed reforms and the problems they attempt to correct are huge. For instance, the large influence campaign money has in the election of the Railroad Commission historically, as detailed in our report Drilling for Dollars. Among our findings was that nearly half of all campaign donations were being solicited and received in non-election years. Creating this fund-raising window will help keep at least the appearance of impropriety away from the new Oil and Gas Commissioner for at least 3 out of every 4 years, though we’re fairly certain the money will gush in all the same. This is why we proposed public financing for this important new office, but barring that, at least better disclosure of who is giving the money (specifically the occupation and employer of donors) and putting a cap on how much someone can give.
Unfortunately, this bill also does not offer any new guidance on regulation of fracking and natural gas drilling. Currently fracking regulation is in somewhat of a no man’s land, as Railroad Commission says they do not enforce our environmental laws, but TCEQ says they don’t regulate the operations of drillers. While it’s possible some of these reforms will come from the TCEQ sunset or from separate legislation, the bottom line is that we cannot allow our agencies to play hot potato with this issue.
So, what does this mean that we would get one new oil and gas commissioner from three current railroad commissioners? If passed in its current form, the railroad commission would be abolished- the railroad commissioners would be out of a job. Not a big deal for those like Michael Williams, who has said he will resign next month in order to pursue a run for Senate. Elizabeth Ames Jones has hinted she would do the same. Upon creation of the new Oil and Gas Commission, the first commissioner would be appointed by Governor Perry, but s/he would only serve until 2012, when the first Oil and Gas Commissioner race in the history of Texas would take place. Whoever wins that race would serve for only two years, then be up for re-election in 2014, and then elections would take place every four years after that.
This is many steps forward from where we began, and we’re grateful that both the Sunset Commission staff and Committee members listened to our (the environmental and good government community’s) thoughtful proposals and adopted some of them into this reform package. It’s a testament to the power of people showing up and making their voices heard. But this is the beginning, not the end. So in the spirit of making our voices heard, please remember to join us Tuesday for ACT Lobby Day. This will be an opportunity for you and us to ask for even more needed reforms both at RRC and TCEQ.
By promoting cleaner energy, cleaner government, and cleaner air for all Texans, we hope to provide for a healthy place to live and prosper. We are Public Citizen Texas.