Could this be the end for the Texas Railroad Commission?

Posted Friday, May. 24, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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The Texas Railroad Commission’s days could be numbered.

The commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry, appeared late Friday to be in danger of shutting down unless its supporters are able to stage a last-minute maneuver to save the 122-year-old agency in the remaining three days of the legislative session.

As lawmakers entered their last 72 hours before adjournment, the Senate on Friday sent Gov Rick Perry legislation by Sen. Jane Nelson that would overhaul the state’s scandal-plagued cancer-fighting agency.

New problems also dogged a budget agreement still awaiting approval as Perry’s office revealed the governor’s concerns about a supplemental spending bill that calls for a drawdown of nearly $4 billion from the state’s rainy day fund. But an apparent budget deal was struck late Friday night.

Both the House and Senate planned to work through the weekend to tackle the remaining batch of bills before closing out their 140-day biennial session. But even with Monday’s adjournment drawing near, lawmakers braced for the possibility that they could remain in Austin for a special session lasting up to 30 days.

The potential closure of the railroad commission, which has had a strong regulatory presence in Barnett Shale natural gas production, emerged Friday when Rep. Dennis Bonnen said he has no plans to revive a failed “Sunset” bill that would keep the agency in operation.

“The Railroad Commission and their executive director aggressively worked against passing any Railroad Commission sunset bill this session,” said Bonnen, R-Angleton, chairman of the Sunset Advisory Commission, which periodically reviews state agencies and determines whether they should continue operating. “Being that that bill had to pass for the agency to continue, I take that as a clear sign that they’re not interested in the agency continuing.”

The Railroad Commission, which regulates the state’s oil and gas industry, was created in 1891 and is guided by a three-member commission currently made up of Barry T. Smitherman, David Porter and Christi Craddick, daughter of former House Speaker and state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland.

If no last minute maneuvers occur to save the agency, Bonnen said, it would cease to exist on Sept. 1 and its duties could be reassigned to other state agencies.

Bonnen said he has no plans to save the agency. But legislative action by others to continue the agency could come as late as Monday, the last day of the session.

“Things can always change,” he said. “But I’m not that open to change.”

State Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, said it’s difficult for lawmakers to reach consensus on what to do with the Railroad Commission.

“There is such a wide array of opinions on what should be done,” he said. “We can’t even agree to change the name.”

But he said the agency needs to survive.

“We need the agency,” he said. “There are a lot of important regulatory duties that they do. They don’t necessarily do them well, but they do them.”

Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, said the agency and its regulatory functions are “so important to the economy of this state” that it would be a mistake to allow it to collapse. Duncan said he believes that continuing the agency is important enough to be considered in a special session that many lawmakers believe is inevitable.

Perry has threatened a special session if he isn’t satisfied with the Legislature’s performance on water, transportation, and tax relief. And Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst told the Star-Telegram earlier this week that he wants a legislative overtime to address more than a half-dozen conservative-backed bills that were blocked by Democrats.

The governor’s office has given no recent hints that a special session may be on the horizon, indicating that Perry won’t make that decision until the until the current 140-day session finishes its work.

Asked about the prospects of a special session as he returned to his office from a visit to the House chamber, Perry told reporters: “We’re heading for the end of the session.”

Overhauling the state’s ethics regulatory agency, authorizing more charters schools, restructuring testing and graduation requirements in public schools and extending the life of the energy-regulatory Texas Railroad Commission were among issues queued up for action in the Legislature’s home stretch.

Lawmakers also worked to keep a multifaceted budget agreement on track.

A supplemental $5.4 billion spending measure that includes priority spending for education and water was sent to a House-Senate conference committee to negotiate differences between the two chambers. The panel was under heavy time pressure to find a compromise and return House Bill 1025 to House members for a final vote before a midnight deadline.

Moreover, Perry apparently raised the bar Friday when he told The Texas Tribune that he opposes a $1.75 billion withdrawal from the rainy day fund to reverse an accounting trick that lawmakers used to make the budget for the current biennium appear balanced.

Asked if the withdrawal would provoke a veto, Havens said. “I don’t think we’re there now.”

The bill, which draws nearly $4 billion from the rainy day fund, has also encountered opposition from lawmakers in both parties.

Sen. Jane Nelson’s bill toughening oversight of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas sailed through the Senate on its way to Perry, who is expected to sign the measure. The restructuring became an early priority for lawmakers in both parties after allegations of political favoritism in the awarding of millions of dollars in research grants by the agency.

Passage of SB149 was needed to permit the release of $600 million in state funds for CPRIT research over the next two years. Legislative leaders ordered a hold on CPRIT funds amid legislative inquiries into the CPRIT scandal.

Nelson, a Flower Mound Republican who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, said the bill creates iron-clad checks and balances aimed at preventing a recurrence of the alleged corruption.

“It will restore confidence to everyone involved in the funding for cancer prevention and research,” said Nelson, R-Flower Mound. “It’s critically important we continue the incredible things we are doing right now.”

She said Senate Bill 149 will save lives by enabling CPRIT to refocus on its fundamental mission finding ways to prevent and cure cancers.

Voters authorized the creation of CPRIT in 2007, approving spending $3 billion over 10 years to fund cancer research. Nelson and Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, co-authored the proposition to create the agency.

Senate Bill 149 restructures CPRIT’s internal leadership, toughens oversight on the approval of grants and prohibits cozy relationships between CPRIT and businesses in line for grants from the agency.

Dave Montgomery, 512-739-4471 Twitter: @daveymontgomery Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610 Twitter: @atinsley

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