About Air and Water

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Railroad Commission maintains some key turf

By CLAY ROBISON - Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle - Oct. 14, 2007
AUSTIN — Although the last train chugged out of the Texas Railroad Commission's regulatory station long ago, the panel still occupies some prominent turf on the state's political landscape.

Its main function, of course, is to provide oversight of the oil and natural gas industry, but it also can be a staging and money-raising arena for restless politicians waiting for a shot at higher office.

Quite naturally in the money-driven world of Texas politics, the three commissioners (the regulators) get much of their campaign funding from oil and gas interests (the regulated), a long-standing tradition that the Republicans in power inherited from their Democratic predecessors.

In preparation for his re-election race, Michael Williams, the only commissioner and one of only a handful of state officials on the ballot next year, raised $322,045 during the last 11 days in June, his first opportunity following the ban on raising money during last spring's legislative session.

More than 70 percent of the money came from oil and gas executives, employees or political action committees or from law firms representing oil and gas interests.

And you can bet that in the upcoming 12 months before the 2008 general election, the foxes will shower Williams' share of the regulatory henhouse with much more moola.

"I make my decisions based on the record (of each case)," Williams said.

That may be, but the perception of a monied, insider coziness at the commission will remain as long as the industry's generosity continues and there aren't any legal limits on donations.

The last commissioner to spring into a higher, elected office was Carole Keeton Strayhorn (she was known as Rylander then), who was elected comptroller in the middle of a Railroad Commission term in 1998.

Williams, who succeeded Strayhorn in 1999, already is eyeing 2010. That's when Gov. Rick Perry's anticipated departure — depending on who runs to succeed him — could open up a U.S. Senate seat, the lieutenant governor's office or the attorney general's post.

Williams could run for any of the above without having to resign his commission seat, if he wins a new six-year term next year.

A Texas rarity
The Republican lock on statewide offices and his strong financial support from the oil and gas industry favor Williams' re-election, although his race could be affected by the presidential and U.S. Senate races at the top of the ballot.

Two Democrats — former San Antonio City Councilman Art Hall and retired petroleum engineer Dale Henry of Lampasas — already are running for the post.

Henry has lost two previous, underfunded Railroad Commission races.

Hall has enlisted former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros and former Land Commissioner Garry Mauro as honorary campaign co-chairmen and apparently has some ambitious fundraising plans.

It will be his first statewide campaign.

Although not unprecedented, a Williams-Hall race would be a rarity in Texas politics — a statewide race between two black candidates.

"I am heartened by the fact that a young brother is interested in presenting himself to the people of Texas. If he wins the nomination, it could make for an interesting conversation among Texans," said Williams, 54. Hall is 36.

Potential conflict?
Hall's wife, Stephanie, is a lawyer for Valero Energy Corp.

Hall said that wouldn't pose a conflict because she doesn't practice before the Railroad Commission. But it's a small world.

The Valero political action committee has given Williams $21,000 during his tenure on the commission, including $10,000 in June. And guess who is among the hundreds of Valero employees contributing to the PAC?

Stephanie Hall.

Preserving the name
Since the Texas Railroad Commission no longer regulates railroads — the Legislature transferred the last of its rail safety oversight to the Texas Department of Transportation two years ago — commissioners have lobbied for a name change.

So far, the Legislature has resisted, perhaps out of nostalgia.

But there is another way to preserve the name, and, in the eyes of criminal defense lawyers, a worthy candidate.

Given the continuing controversy over Texas' record in death penalty cases, some lawyers believe "railroad" belongs on the letterhead of the Court of Criminal Appeals.
Read more in the Houston Chronicle

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