Search for perfect system of governance
Here are just a few of the changes being discussed:
• Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, is talking about increasing the size of the 15- member State Board of Education, because each member represents twice as many people as a state senator.
• There’s a move on to reduce the board of the Texas Department of Transportation from five appointed members to a single commissioner, to provide buck-stops-here accountability.
• The Sunset Advisory Commission has endorsed reducing the three-member elective Texas Railroad Commission to a single commissioner.
Some want to elect the commissioner, while others want the job filled by gubernatorial appointment, subject to approval by two-thirds of the Texas Senate.
A problem with three-member commissions is that they can run afoul of the Texas Open Meetings law. If two commissioners are in the restroom at the same time, that’s a quorum, and thus should be an open meeting .
That was one reason TxDOT’s commission was increased from three members to five a few years ago – so that two commissioners could have a conversation without violating the law. Another reason was to allow more regional representation.
The Railroad Commission, you may know, no longer regulates railroads. It regulates the oil and gas industry.
In politics, it has often provided an opportune launching pad to seek another statewide office. It provides a podium and a reason to move around the state, and it’s a good place to raise money.
Its six-year term also can allow its members to run for another office without risking their seat on the commission.
That was the successful route followed by Democrat John Sharp to win the office of state comptroller in 1990. Republican Carole Keeton Strayhorn did the same thing in 1998.
Other Railroad Commission members who have sought other offices include Democrat Buddy Temple for governor in 1982; Republican Kent Hance for governor in 1990; Democrat Bob Krueger for U.S. Senate in 1993; and Republican Barry Williamson for attorney general in 1998. They all lost.
The recognition that the commission can be a bullpen for other offices is underlined in the current political cycle. Two of the three Railroad Commission members – Republicans Michael Williams and Elizabeth Ames Jones – are seeking the U.S. Senate seat that Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison says she won’t run for again in 2012.
As for the State Board of Education, the state’s school oversight structure has traveled a winding path over the last century or so.
It’s gone from a single state superintendent of schools appointed by the governor, to an elected superintendent (including the first woman ever to hold statewide elective office – Annie Webb Blanton, elected in 1918), to an elected state board of education which chose the commissioner, replaced by an appointed board, back to an elected board, all the way to, in the mid-1990s, having the governor directly select the education commissioner.
And now, the governor gets to designate which of the board members will be its chair – though the Texas Senate has turned thumbs down on one of Gov. Rick Perry’s choices, and may turn down another.
The State Board of Education has been problematic ever since it was created. It was born of the Gilmer-Aikin school reforms of the late 1940s, to avoid having a single elected commissioner of education.
The recommendation from the study group was a nine-member appointed board. But rural legislators feared big-city domination. So, to give better geographical representation of ideas from around the state, they called for electing one member from each of the state’s congressional districts.
In the 1950s, that made for a 21-member board. By the next revamping of Texas education in 1984, Texas had gained six more members of Congress, making for a cumbersome 27-member board.
The board was reduced to 15 members appointed by the governor from individual districts. To appease legislators who thought the board should be elected, the reformers agreed to have the board revert to elective after four years.
But then-Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby and others thought the appointive board was preferable. The Legislature authorized a 1987 referendum to keep the board appointive, but it failed. Voters endorsed the return to an elective board by a 53-47 ratio, with unhappy teachers’ groups providing much of the oomph behind the effort.
Legislators probably aren’t real likely to make the 15-member board bigger. Some would like to abolish it altogether.
But, just as the tide goes out, and then comes back in, the rearrangements of agencies, boards and commissions, and how many members are chosen and how, and who’s in charge, likely will continue as well.
Contact McNeely at email@example.com or (512) 458- 2963.