Public hearing to decide if Texas Railroad Commission should be abolished

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by BRAD WATSON

WFAA

Posted on December 14, 2010 at 11:06 PM

Updated Wednesday, Dec 15 at 12:09 AM

DALLAS - Wednesday, the first public hearing will take place to decide on whether the Texas Railroad Commission should be abolished.

The hearing comes on the heels of a four-year News 8 investigation and a Texas Sunset Advisory Commission report raising concerns with the agency's oversight, funding and enforcement.

Now, hard data shows the oil and gas industry has nearly doubled its contributions to commissioners since 2000. The report, by the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen, found the running of the Texas Railroad Commission and the way its campaigns are financed as outdate as its name.

The RRC regulates energy, not railroads.

“But, if they are increasingly dependent on money from the industries that they regulate, they're not accountable to the people; they're accountable to the industries," said Andy Wilson, a finance researcher for Public Citizen.

Public Citizen found that 80 percent of the campaign donations collected by the three elected Republican commissioners come from industries they regulate.

In 2000, industry donations were about $420,000. By 2008, they were more than $2 million.

Political action committees, like those related to Atmos Energy that supplies natural gas to North Texas homes, have been active.

Atmos PACs gave about $50,000 to the incumbent commissioners in the past 10 years. But, Wilson said data shows the big jump came in donations from individuals in energy businesses.

“There may not be a quid pro quo, but there's kind of a soft corruption, an economy of influence where people are giving money to get access," he said.

The state Sunset Advisory Commission staff found the money issue so critical and potentially conflicting that it recommended replacing elected commissioners with appointed ones.

But, the longest serving commissioner, Michael Williams, doesn't see a problem.

“There's nothing in it," Williams said. "There's nothing in it that's an indictment of the commission.” 

Public Citizen agreed with the Sunset Advisory staff that commissioners should be appointed and the agency renamed the Oil and Gas Commission.

“That will get rid of the appearance that people are trying to buy votes and to buy regulatory actions," Wilson said.

The question is will lawmakers want to abolish the Railroad Commission?

It could save millions of dollars in a tough budget, but with the legislature firmly controlled by Republicans with Republican commissioners at an agency that's a springboard to other offices, it could be doubtful.

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