Perry Vetoes Modest, Mincing Reform of Texas' Political Aspirant "Springboard" (Aka the Railroad Commission)

In case you missed it, Gov. Rick Perry used his veto Friday to override the bipartisan will of the legislature, which sought to inject the most meager, almost universally agreeable ethics reform into the state oil and gas regulator.

They attempted to do this because the Railroad Commission of Texas is known as a full-time fundraiser for higher-office seekers. The Sunset Advisory Commission called it a "springboard" for political aspirants. So, lawmakers decided that perhaps it wasn't such a good idea for regulators to seek another elected office and line their campaign war chests with oil and gas industry money while regulating... the oil and gas industry. The legislation they sent to Perry's desk would require that commissioners resign first.

If you'll recall, back in 2011, commissioners Michael Williams and Elizabeth Ames Jones both made failed runs for the same U.S. Senate seat while campaigning and fundraising heartily. Meanwhile, they were charged with overseeing complex, contested oil and gas cases that take no small amount of time and expertise to comprehend. Our lawmakers and the Sunset panel decided this did not inspire confidence in the Railroad Commission's impartiality.

Perry nevertheless vetoed the bill and claimed the measure would "change the structure of a constitutional agency without the consent of Texas voters."

"This portion of the legislation could have been used as a model for how to adequately reform the Railroad Commission," said Tom "Smitty" Smith of Public Citizen. "But instead the governor shot it down."

The bill was remarkable only for the modesty of its aims. It included none of the other Sunset recommendations. Absent was a provision to limit the amount of time commissioners can spend fundraising. It didn't include a measure to change the name of the Texas Railroad Commission to one more apt, since it doesn't regulate railroads. It wouldn't even prohibit commissioners from accepting campaign donations from an oil and gas company whose contested case they are currently hearing.

None of it made its way into the ethics reform bill, even though each would remedy conditions that are ripe for conflicts of interest. For example, 55,000 violations were identified last year. Only two percent were sent up for enforcement action. That sounds like a regulator that doesn't do much regulating.

But perhaps that's just the way the governor likes it.

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