Today the Sunset Advisory Commission – which evaluates the effectiveness of state agencies and decides whether they should be disbanded or reformed – will meet to look at one agency that’s managed to avoid reform for years: the Railroad Commission of Texas.
The Sunset Commission says that name is the first problem. That's because the Railroad Commission doesn’t regulate railroads, it regulates the state’s oil and gas industry. So, the commission recommends a name change.
But that’s just the start.
A recent report on the Railroad Commission found the commission does not “ensure public safety and environmental protection.” It says the Railroad Commission keeps records so poorly that it can’t show how many oil and gas violations it’s found. And, if companies do break the rules, they can reasonably assume they won’t be penalized.
Taken as a whole the review of the Railroad Commission paints a picture of a state agency that is failing in many of its primary duties. But maybe the most surprising thing about it is that few of these critiques are new. This is actually the third attempt at overhauling the Railroad Commission in the last five years. The last two times, critics say, state lawmakers failed to pass a bill mandating changes thanks to pressure from the oil and gas industry.
Tom “Smitty” Smith, head of the environmental and consumer rights group Public Citizen Texas, says he hopes the third time is the charm. While he supports the sunset recommendations this year, he says they should go further.
For example, the last review recommended limiting campaign contributions to railroad commissioners from the oil and gas industry.
“Ann Richards had this famous saying that says 'You gotta dance with them that brung ya,'" says Smith. “People tend to look favorably at the people who have provided them large amount of campaign contributions. It’s just human nature.”
The proposal to limit those contributions is absent this year. Smith wants it re-introduced. But the reality may be exactly the opposite. In an effort to finally pass any kind of reform, some lawmakers are talking about whittling down the Sunset Commission’s recommendations.
“It’s easier to put [campaign contribution regulations] in a separate bill and to file that bill. Than to put it in this bill and have that bog down this conversation,” says Round Rock Republican Rep. Larry Gonzalez, who chairs the Sunset Advisory Commission. “There is an effort now to focus in on the critical elements of mission met effectively and efficiently. Period.”
Gonzalez says that includes improving reporting of oil and gas violations. But it might mean leaving aside some other reforms, including the name change.
“That has been a sticking point for a while. It’s been one reason the bill has failed. I think everyone has realized, lets remove that variable and let’s pass the Sunset bill,” he says.
The Sunset Advisory Commission meeting started at 9 a.m. at the capitol.