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Who watches the fox while he guards the henhouse?

The Railroad Commission needs an ethics upgrade.

Steve Brown

Steve Brown

The race for Texas railroad commissioner has revived — at least in the short term — debate around a series of thwarted legislative proposals to overhaul the state’s curiously named oil and gas agency.

Calling the Railroad Commission too heavily influenced by the industry it regulates, Steve Brown, a Democrat, last week unveiled a slate of proposals aimed at reworking its image — measures first proposed by a panel of state lawmakers in 2013. The proposals include changing the commission’s name, shortening the period in which commissioners can fundraise, barring commissioners from accepting contributions from parties with business before the commission, expanding its recusal policy and requiring commissioners to resign before running for another office.

“The agency is broken itself, and so, you know, because of that, there are so many people in the community — out in the state of Texas — who just don’t trust the process,” Brown, the former chairman of the Fort Bend Democrats, said in an interview.

The move revealed stark differences between the campaign priorities of Brown and Ryan Sitton, his Republican opponent and the clear front-runner in the race, as they vie for an office that toes a line between industry champion and watchdog.

Sitton’s campaign criticized Brown’s announcement but did not directly weigh in on the bulk of the proposals, saying Sitton’s attention is focused on other issues. “We’re focused on making sure that Ryan is communicating his message, not in responding to ideas from his opponent,” said Jared Craighead, a spokesman for Sitton. Sitton is an oil and gas engineer who touts his industry expertise in his campaign credentials.

Which is to say, the status quo suits him just fine.

Brown’s proposals are the word-for-word recommendations of the 2012-13 Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, the legislative body that periodically reviews how state agencies operate. Lawmakers last session debated but failed to pass several pieces of legislation incorporating the recommendations. The Railroad Commission opposed the overhaul, arguing that commissioners should not be subject to stricter fundraising standards than other statewide officials and that the agency’s current ethics policies were plenty robust.

Brown called it a “vast mistake that the Legislature has been unable to pass these reforms.”

But Craighead panned Brown’s proposal as unoriginal. “I think to cut and paste the Sunset review commission’s work shows a lack of thought, and certainly, those are not the types of things that Ryan is talking about,” he said. He added that Sitton considers ethics and transparency issues important.

Again, the status quo suits Ryan Sitton just fine. Look, there’s a reason why the RRC gets singled out for special ethics rules. For one thing, Commissioners serve six-year terms with no resign-to-run requirement, which means they all get one guaranteed shot at another office without having to step down first. More to the point, Commissioners and Commission candidates, much like judges and judicial candidates, tend to draw financial support exclusively from the parties that have business before them. For judges that means lawyers, and for Railroad Commissioners that means the energy industry. In both cases, it creates at least the appearance of impropriety. And in both cases, the answer is campaign finance reform. I’ve been arguing for public financing of judicial races, which is a long enough shot on its own and even less likely here. The Sunset recommendation of limiting the dates for contributions doesn’t really solve the impropriety issue but at least provides a bit of separation, and it has a chance of passing the Legislature. I’ll take what I can get. If you want more of the same old same old, Ryan Sitton’s your man. If you want a change, vote for Steve Brown.

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