Into the Sunset

Sunset Commission Has Some Big Changes for TXDOT, Railroad Commission


I arrived at the Capitol for the second day of the session expecting a whole lot of fighting. The whole building was quiet and empty—in contrast to yesterday’s packed galleries and hallways. While we expected a big tussle over rules in the Senate, both chambers gaveled in and out quickly, without fanfare and the controversy will wait until next week. Still, it turns out the day saw plenty of action—in the Sunset Commission hearings.

The Sunset Commission reviews different agencies each year to determine whether they’re necessary and running efficiently. The goal is to eliminate waste, and the committee is tackling it with a vengeance. In the morning, the members voted to merge the Texas Youth Commission and the Juvenile Probation Commission. This comes almost four years after various sex-abuse scandals in the TYC system prompted the legislature to reform the system. Still, the merger was unexpected. 

But they were only getting started. Among other changes, the commission voted that both the Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas, and the Department on Transportation would have only one commissioner. That puts two of the three Railroad Commissioners out of work, not to mention four out of five TXDoT Commissioners. 

State Sen. Glenn Hegar, the commission’s chair, wryly noted, “Maybe three [Railroad Commissioners] wanna run for office because they’re always competing with each other,” referencing the potential U.S. Senate runs from Railroad Commissioners Michael Williams and Elizabeth Ames Jones. No longer, apparently. When it came to creating a single commissioner to oversee the Commission on Environmental Quality, however, only Democratic Rep. Rafael Anchia and Democratic Sen. Chuy Hinojosa voted for aye, and the motion failed.

All the changes the commission made will now be part of the overall Sunset bill, which will come before both chambers later this session.

I, like most of the building, expected an exciting debate in the Senate over what rules they would use to govern their business. At issue: the two-thirds rule, which requires that that at least 20 of the 31 members agree to allow each bill to come up for debate. With the rule in place, the Senate’s 12 Democrats can effectively kill a lot of GOP legislation. Last year, the Senate created a specific rule, allowing a GOP-favored Voter ID bill to come up without the requisite two-thirds. (It subsqeuently failed in the House.) This year, it seemed like the Rs might go for more—state Sen. Dan Patrick has discussed replacing it with a three-fifths rule, the exact proportion the GOP holds. 

After a closed caucus meeting, though, the Senate instead opted to postpone the debate until next week. So that’s one more week where everyone chills out before the fights start in earnest…unless they were sitting in the Sunset hearings today.

—additional reporting from Daniel Setiawan and Ari Phillips