In the Texas Legislature, today’s solution often turns out to be tomorrow’s problem. The latest example is the effort to make changes at the Texas Department of Transportation, which as of press time had passed both the House and Senate but in vastly different forms.
TxDOT is going through sunset review this session, in which the agency must justify its continued existence, which means everyone who’s dissatisfied with anything the agency does gets a shot at it.
One of the biggest differences in the House and Senate versions is how TxDOT would be governed. The differing approaches will have to be worked out in a conference committee, then passed by both bodies before the legislative session ends on June 1.
The House, making things up as it went along, voted to try to make TxDOT more responsive, by abolishing the five-member, governor-appointed commission that oversees the agency and replacing it with a single commissioner elected statewide. Then the House added 14 regionally elected commissioners; together, the statewide and regional commissioners could function something like a mayor-council system.
The Senate version would leave the transportation agency’s oversight largely as is, although the Senate, like the House, would set up a legislative committee to help steer the agency.
The senators are more nervous about the possibility that, with a cumbersome elective board, they’d be creating a monster. They’re well aware of the wayward course that another elective board – the State Board of Education, with 15 members elected from individual districts – has taken on matters like evolution and textbooks. The House, earlier in the session, seriously discussed further limiting the powers of the education board, whose members are largely unknown to most Texans. But that effort was voted down by Republican House members.
Still, lawmakers from both legislative houses and both parties want to send Gov. Rick Perry a strong message that they don’t like the direction he’s been taking on transportation, particularly with regard to toll roads.
Perry’s appointees on TxDOT – in particular, the late chairman Ric Williamson, who died a little over a year ago – had embarked on an ambitious plan to establish what they called the Trans-Texas Corridor, which would bunch toll roads, rail lines, pipelines, and transmission lines in corridors across the state.
Even though legislators had given permission to do those things several years ago, the flap at home – particularly over tolls and condemnation of farmland – caused legislators to decide that perhaps they needed to re-assert themselves.
The dustup is the latest example of legislators trying to achieve a different result by changing how an agency is supervised or how a program is conducted.
Take redistricting. The well-meaning imposition of equal-population single-member legislative districts by the courts, plus Congress’ addition of affirmative action to promote minority representation, has resulted in many legislative districts where one party or the other has an almost guaranteed win. With so many elections being decided, in essence, during the primaries, legislative bodies have moved toward the poles of right and left, and the influence of moderate voters has decreased.
A couple of other ideas for changes in how agencies’ leaders are selected also have been proposed this legislative session. One would have the state insurance commissioner elected, rather than appointed by the governor. The insurance department used to be governed by a three-member appointed board, which in turn chose an insurance commissioner to run the agency. That structure was replaced in 1991 by a single appointed commissioner.
Another proposal would have reduced the three-member Texas Railroad Commission to one elected commissioner. But its sponsor, State Rep. David Farabee, D-Wichita Falls, fell short of the 100 House votes needed to help put a constitutional amendment proposal on the ballot.
The railroad commission was set up in 1891 during a populist uprising to stop railroads from gouging farmers with freight rates, and it may make sense to reduce the number of commissioners there. But electing either the insurance commissioner or a single railroad commissioner might not be the way to ensure the best leadership for those agencies.
Having the governor appoint the commissioner, with the advice and consent of two-thirds of the Texas Senate, is less cumbersome yet allows for some legislative oversight of the governor’s appointees.
However, the legislators – particularly House Democrats, but also some Republicans – have increasingly come to distrust the appointees selected by Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history. That’s the underlying spur for some of these suggestions for structural change, especially at TxDOT.
We’ll know in the next few days how the legislature decides to settle the governance of Texas transportation – if, indeed, the House and Senate can agree.
My late journalistic colleague and friend Molly Ivins had an interesting suggestion. She said we ought to appoint everybody we elect today and elect everybody we appoint. And then in 10 years, change them all back.
Veteran Texas political reporter Dave McNeely can be reached at at firstname.lastname@example.org.