The search never seems to end to find the perfect administrative structure for the state’s boards and commissions to oversee some of the state’s activities. Here’s just a few of the changes being discussed:
• Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, is talking about increasing the size of the 15-member State Board of Education, because each member represents twice as many people as a state senator.
• There’s a move on to reduce the board of the Texas Department of Transportation from five appointed members to a single commissioner, to provide buck-stops-here accountability.
• The Sunset Advisory Commission has endorsed reducing the three-member elective Texas Railroad Commission to a single commissioner. Some want to elect the commissioner, while others want the job filled by gubernatorial appointment, subject to approval by two-thirds of the Texas Senate.
A problem with three-member commissions is that they can run afoul of the Texas Open Meetings law. If two commissioners are in the restroom at the same time, that’s a quorum, and thus should be an open meeting. That was one reason TxDOT’s commission was increased from three members to five a few years ago – so that two commissioners could have a conversation without violating the law. Another reason was to allow more regional representation.
The Railroad Commission, you may know, no longer regulates railroads. It regulates the oil and gas industry. In politics, it has often provided an opportune launching pad to seek another statewide office. It provides a podium and a reason to move around the state, and it’s a good place to raise money. Its six-year term also can allow its members to run for another office without risking their seat on the commission.
As for the State Board of Education, the state’s school oversight structure has traveled a winding path over the last century or so. It’s gone from a single state superintendent of schools appointed by the governor, to an elected superintendent, to an elected state board of education which chose the commissioner, replaced by an appointed board, back to an elected board, all the way to, in the mid-1990s, having the governor directly select the education commissioner. And now, the governor gets to designate which of the board members will be its chair.
The State Board of Education has been problematic ever since it was created. It was born of the Gilmer-Aikin school reforms of the late 1940s, to wire around a single elected commissioner of education. The recommendation from the study group was a nine-member appointed board. But rural legislators feared big-city domination. So, to give better geographical representation of ideas from around the state, they called for electing one member from each of the state’s congressional districts. In the 1950s, that made for a 21-member board. By the next revamping of Texas education in 1984, Texas had gained six more members of Congress, making for a cumbersome 27-member board. The board was reduced to 15 members appointed by the governor from individual districts. To appease legislators who thought the board should be elected, the reformers agreed to have the board revert to elective after four years. But then-Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby and others thought the appointive board was preferable. The Legislature authorized a 1987 referendum to keep the board appointive, but it failed. Voters endorsed the return to an elective board by a 53 to 47 ratio, with unhappy teachers’ groups providing much of the oomph behind the effort. Legislators probably aren’t real likely to make the 15-member board bigger. Some would like to abolish it altogether.