Bill could keep two away from U.S. Senate race
Railroad Commission member Michael Williams has already said he's running if Hutchison resigns or is elected governor next year. And his colleague Elizabeth Ames Jones is thinking about it. Both are Republicans.
But HB 3651 by Rep. Tommy Merritt, RLongview, would prohibit Railroad Commission members from running for other offices "during the term for which the commissioner is elected or appointed," unless it is "an office for which the federal or state constitution prescribes exclusive eligibility requirements" - like Congress.
And if they can't be prevented from running, the bill would make them resign to do so.
Merritt says the three commission members should be in Washington and elsewhere defending the Texas oil and gas industry they regulate, not campaigning for other jobs.
The commission for decades served as a sort of well-paid pasture for officials who had served in other offices, like former Lt. Gov. Ben Ramsey and former House Speaker Byron Tunnell.
But in recent years, it's become a stepping-stone to other offices.
The commission is also a handy place to solicit contributions from oil and gas interests while campaigning for another office - something Merritt thinks is inappropriate.
With staggered six-year terms, members can seek another office without risking their commission seat, unless it's the final year of their term. This is what Merritt is trying to stop.
"I think the commission members aggressively promoting the Texas oil and gas industry nationally is too important for them to be spending time running for other offices," Merritt said. "They should be spending considerable time in Washington and Austin, stressing the importance of the oil and gas industry to the nation's defense."
Merritt said oil and gas drilling, unlike erecting wind generators, is risky, without guarantee of striking paydirt.
"That's why commission members must be explaining to congress and administrative officials -- day in and day out -- the importance to the industry of continuing the federal depletion allowance, and deduction of intangible drilling costs," Merritt said.
Since 1980, six commissioners have run for other offices.
• Democrat Buddy Temple ran for governor in 1982, two years into his term. He lost.
• Democrat John Sharp ran for comptroller in 1990, four years into his term. He won.
• Republican Kent Hance, appointed in 1987 to a vacancy, ran for governor in 1990, the final year of his term. Hance lost.
• Democrat Robert Krueger, who lost U.S. Senate races in 1978 and 1984, was elected to succeed Hance in 1990. But then-Gov. Ann Richards appointed him to a U.S. Senate vacancy in 1993, so Krueger went off the commission. He then lost the subsequent special election to Hutchison.
• Republican Carole Keeton Strayhorn followed Sharp's lead and ran for comptroller in 1998, two years into a six-year term. She won.
• Her Republican colleague on the commission, Barry Williamson, ran for attorney general in 1998, the final year of his term. Like Hance, if Merritt's bill had been the law, Williamson would have had to resign to run.
Beauford Jester was the only commissioner elected governor, in 1946 -- two years into a sixyear term.
(Jester also was the only Texas governor to leave office by dying, in 1949, half a year into his second two-year term.)
Merritt said his proposal isn't designed to pick on Williams and Jones. He first introduced it in 1999, after Strayhorn and Williamson had sought other offices in 1998, and their replacements on the commission - Republicans Tony Garza and Michael Williams - were immediately being mentioned as possible candidates for other offices. Garza had lost a race for attorney general in 1994.
Although Merritt's 1999 bill unanimously cleared the House State Affairs Committee, and was set on the House calendar, floor consideration was postponed late in the legislative session. It died when the session ended.
Merritt mothballed the idea -- until this year. Its chances remain to be seen.
Ironically, when the Railroad Commission was established in 1891, to stop railroads from gouging farmers, it was considered so important that John H. Reagan left a U.S. Senate seat to become its first chairman.
Now, two commission members want to use it as a base to run for that same Senate seat. Times change.