U.S. Supreme Court ruling to allow gerrymandering will directly affect Texas districts

In a decision reached on June 27, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal courts will have no role in disputes over congressional districts drawn for partisan gain, otherwise known as gerrymandering. 

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his majority opinion, “the districting plans at issue here are highly partisan, by any measure.” But ultimately, in a 5 to 4 decision, the Court elected to leave discrepancies regarding redistricting or gerrymandering up to Congress or state legislatures. 

In the dissent for the liberal wing of the court, Justice Elena Kagan wrote, “For the first time ever, this Court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities.”

Redistricting, a process controlled in Texas by the majority party, occurs once every 10 years. Following the 2020 census, Texas lawmakers will begin redrawing political districts. Gerrymandering occurs when districts are intentionally drawn to benefit a political party, either to win more seats, or to protect existing seats. 

Texas has a longstanding history of gerrymandering, and because of the power at stake, both parties have been guilty of using the political ploy. This results in a lack of moderate representatives willing to compromise with the opposite party, and more firmly partisan elected officials.

Some argue gerrymandering is a prevalent issue in places like Texas because lawmakers are involved in the drawing of their own districts. To create truly representative districts, over a dozen states have shifted the responsibility of mapping to independent or bipartisan commissions. 

Just one day after the Supreme Court ruling, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced his appointments to the 2021 Redistricting Committee for interim hearings, composed of 10 Republicans and seven Democrats. If the 87th Legislature does not approve the redrawn maps in 2021, the Texas Constitution allows the responsibility of redistricting to be advanced to the Legislative Redistricting Board (LRB). The five members that make up the LRB are the lieutenant governor, speaker of the house, attorney general, comptroller, and commissioner of the general land office—all Republicans. 

This puts extreme pressure on the upcoming 2020 elections. For decades, the Republican Party has controlled the Texas legislature. But in the 2018 elections, Democrats flipped 12 seats in the Texas House, and now need only nine seats to control the legislative body. 

Several bills were filed in the 86th Legislature to reform the redistricting process in Texas, but none made it out of committee. That means the burden now falls on Texas voters. If Texans want improvements to district-mapping, they’ll need to vote for candidates that support the same reform, as the decisions made in 2021 Texas redistricting will impact the next decade. 

Texas Legislature fails to rename the Railroad Commission, obscuring agency’s true function

A move to bring more transparency to Texas state government was snubbed again this year for the fifth consecutive session. House Bill 857, authored by State Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas), sought to change the name of the Texas Railroad Commission to the Texas Energy Resources Commission to accurately reflect the function of the 128-year-old agency. The bill died in a House committee chaired by Rep. Chris Paddie (R-Marshall), who received $79,500 from the bill’s detractors in the oil and gas industry in the last election cycle.

Anchia told the Dallas News that he filed the bill to “help consumers connect the commission with oversight over oil and natural gas companies and encourage the public to report problems.” It was part of his legislative package on increasing pipeline safety in response to a gas explosion tragedy in his district.

Most Texans do not know that the role of the Railroad Commission is to oversee the oil and gas industry—rather than railroads, as the name suggests. The commission stopped regulating railroads in 2005, yet bills to rechristen the agency have died every session for the last decade, even when the issue would allow Texans to decide through a constitutional election. 

For example:

  • In 2009, a bill passed the Senate and died in the House Energy Resources Committee.
  • In 2011, a bill died in a conference committee after passing the House and Senate.
  • A bill died several times in the House Energy Resources Committee in 2013, including once after passing the Senate.
  • A bill died in the House Calendars committee in 2015 after surprisingly passing the stingy Energy Resources Committee.
  • In 2016, during the interim for the Texas Legislature, a legislative body called the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission rejected that recommendation after the public gave supporting testimony for it. 
  • A bill died multiple times in House Energy Resources Committee in 2017.

Opponents of the efforts, lobbyists for the oil and gas industry, have suggested one reason to reject this bill is that a name change would “disrupt the energy market” due to the Texas Railroad Commission’s name recognition.

Yet lack of transparency only serves the industry that wants to retain their influence over the Commission, whose members receive millions of dollars in contributions every election.

Texans should know the agency’s true function because it sets gas rates in Texas, regulates the oil and gas industry (including pipelines), and mediates disputes with the industry.