Sunset Commission says Railroad Commission needs new name

Published 11:24 am Tuesday, May 10, 2016


The Texas Railroad Commission, for decades a stepping-stone to higher elective office, should change its name, says the staff of the Sunset Advisory Commission.

The reason is that the Railroad Commission, though founded in 1891 during a populist wave to keep railroads from gouging farmers on freight rates, no longer has anything to do with railroads.

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It now mostly regulates oil and gas production and transportation, the liquefied petroleum (LP) gas industry, and surface mining of coal and uranium.

So, the Sunset staff recommends that the name be changed to the Texas Energy Resources Commission. A few earlier efforts to call it the Texas Energy Commission failed to get enough legislative support.

Under the Sunset law, agencies are analyzed every 12 years, and must be positively re-authorized by the Legislature to continue.

The Railroad Commission’s Sunset review has been carried out several times over the past few years. But legislative consideration has bogged down over disagreements. Perhaps it may actually occur in 2017.

The commission in 1917 gradually began overseeing oil and gas production. In the 1930s, during an oil production glut, the commission began to regulate how much wells could produce, and became the de facto price-setter for world oil prices.

That lasted until the Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) came along. Meanwhile, the commission’s railroad oversight was gradually shifted to other state and federal agencies.

The Sunset staff also recommended the commission more actively enforce oil and gas production rules, and more closely regulate producers to cleaning up after themselves.

Another suggestion was that contested gas utility cases be decided not by the commission itself, but by the State Office of Administrative Hearings, which judges disputes for dozens of other agencies.

Another was that the agency hand off regulation of natural gas prices to the Public Utility Commission, which regulates all other utilities in the state.

The Sunset staff remained silent regarding whether the Railroad Commission, by whatever name, should remain a three-member elective body.

Although it was initiated in 1891 as an appointive group, in 1894, it was switched to an elective body, with its members serving six-year overlapping terms.

Particularly in the past few decades, since it picked up regulation of the oil and gas industry, the Railroad Commission has become a launching pad for people seeking other elective positions.

One of its allures is the six-year terms, while most other statewide electives offices are for four-year terms.

That gives its members the ability to run for another office without giving up their commission slot – unless the new effort coincides with the end of their six-year term.

It also gives them a lucrative fund-raising base with the oil and gas industry, whose executives are well aware that if a commissioner loses a race for another office, he or she will still be overseeing oil and gas regulation.

Current members of the commission are Chairman David Porter, Christi Craddick, and Ryan Sitton. The commission chairman is traditionally the next member who is up for election.

Sitton originally planned to seek re-election, but decided just before the December filing deadline to hang up his running shoes.

That set off a flurry of activity among ambitious candidates, and the Republican and Democratic nominees each will be decided in runoffs on May 24.

On the Republican side, a seven-way race ended with wealthy Houston-area businessman Gary Gates, at 28.4 percent, and former state Rep. Wayne Christian of Center with 19.7 percent.

On the Democratic side, former state Rep. Lon Burnam of Fort Worth, who had several newspaper endorsements, had hopes to make the runoff. But he finished third, with 24.9 percent, and did not make the runoff.

Instead, retired San Antonio schoolteacher Grady Yarbrough, with the familiar-sounding name of the late Democratic U.S. Sen. Ralph Yarborough, led with 39.9 percent. He now lives in Flint, in East Texas

Yarbrough had been the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate race in 2012 who was buried by Republican Ted Cruz.

Yarbrough’s runoff opponent is Cody Garrett of Austin, who had 35.1 percent.

Christian is the only one of the four runoff candidates to have held elective office. Runoff winners will face Libertarian Mark Miller and Green Party candidate Marina Salinas in November.

  • • •

Perry Cozying Up to Trump. . . . Former Texas governor Rick Perry was the first of the 16 other Republican presidential hopefuls back in July to castigate New York mogul and celebrity show host Donald Trump.

Perry dubbed him a “cancer on conservatism” – but recently called him one of the smartest people ever to run for president. And yes, Perry would be willing to be his running mate.

“I’m not going to say ‘no’,” Perry said.

Contact McNeely at or 512/458-2963.