Se­nate shifts panel chiefs

Un­usual midterm lead­er­ship changes spark spec­u­la­tion

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Mike Ward

Lt. Gov. David De­whurst on Wed­nes­day shuf­fled the lead­er­ship of eight Se­nate com­mit­tees in a ma­jor over­haul that could shift the pol­i­tics of the next leg­isla­tive ses­sion and could por­tend an up­com­ing va­cancy.

The changes, sparked at least in part by one chair­man’s re­tire­ment ear­lier this year, are the most sig­nif­i­cant re­align­ment of up­per cham­ber com­mit­tees in years. The un­usual midterm lineup change means that sev­eral pan­els with sig­nif­i­cant clout in the next ses­sion have new lead­ers — some with a dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal bent than the pre­vi­ous, though all are Repub­li­cans.

“I would say it’s the biggest shuf­fling in quite a while. I can’t re­call a larger one be­tween ses­sions like this,” said Sen. John Whit­mire, D-Hous­ton, the Se­nate’s long­est-serv­ing mem­ber. He was first elected to the Se­nate in 1983.

An­nounce­ment of the changes trig­gered im­me­di­ate spec­u­la­tion at the Capi­tol about what it all meant: whether some sen­a­tors were get­ting pro­moted or busted and what the shifts would mean for a Jan­uary leg­isla­tive ses­sion that is widely ex­pected to be ran­corous be­cause the state faces a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar bud­get short­fall and must tackle the po­lit­i­cally tick­lish is­sue of re­draw­ing leg­isla­tive and con­gres­sional district bound­aries in the wake of the U.S. cen­sus.

At the top of the list for spec­u­la­tion: why

Con­tin­ued from A Sen. Jeff Went­worth, R-San An­to­nio, lost his chair­man­ship of the Ju­rispru­dence Com­mit­tee and be­came the chair­man of a new and more ob­scure Se­lect Com­mit­tee on Vet­er­ans Health. Went­worth rep­re­sents part of south­ern Travis County and Hays County.

Went­worth, who joined the Se­nate in 1993 and who last ses­sion pub­licly chal­lenged De­whurst sev­eral times for not call­ing one of his bills up for a vote, has been ru­mored for weeks to be con­sid­er­ing re­sign­ing to take a job with the Texas A&M Uni­ver­sity Sys­tem, though he has not com­mented on his fu­ture.

Ear­lier this year he ap­plied to be chan­cel­lor of the Texas State Uni­ver­sity Sys­tem but was not hired.

Went­worth could not be reached for com­ment Wed­nes­day.

Two other sen­a­tors said pri­vately that they sus­pect he is con­sid­er­ing leav­ing his leg­isla­tive seat.

Among the new as­sign­ments, Sen. Tommy Wil­liams, a straight-spo­ken con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­can from The Wood­lands, will re­place Sen. John Carona, a more mod­er­ate Dal­las Repub­li­can, as chair­man of the pow­er­ful Trans­porta­tion and Home­land Se­cu­rity Com­mit­tee.

Carona in re­cent years has been one of the Texas Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion’s harsh­est crit­ics, an­ger­ing some sup­port­ers of the agency and at times even dis­agree­ing with fel­low Repub­li­can Gov. Rick Perry.

But sen­a­tors said pri­vately that Wil­liams, who spent the 2007 ses­sion on the com­mit­tee be­fore drop­ping off in the 2009 ses­sion, may be just as tough in ad­vo­cat­ing re­forms, if not do­ing it so pub­licly.

Carona be­gan his term as chair­man with a bang, call­ing pub­licly in Jan­uary 2007 for Perry to re­place the late Ric Wil­liamson as chair­man of the Texas Trans­porta­tion Com­mis­sion. Then a few weeks later, he crashed a House Trans­porta­tion Com­mit­tee meet­ing to take on Wil­liamson per­son­ally, chid­ing him for fail­ing to re­turn his calls.

By ses­sion’s end, how­ever, Carona was de­fend­ing Tx­DOT and the com­mis­sion against what had be­come a pitch­fork­wield­ing Leg­is­la­ture ea­ger to strip the agency of its con­sid­er­able pow­ers.

Wil­liams au­thored the show­case trans­porta­tion bill of the 2007 ses­sion that stripped Tx­DOT of its abil­ity to reach long-term con­tracts with pri­vate com­pa­nies to build and op­er­ate toll roads.

In other changes, Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horse­shoe Bay, who had been chair­man of the Busi­ness and Com­merce Com­mit­tee, will be­come chair­man of the Nat­u­ral Re­sources Com­mit­tee that was for­merly headed by Sen. Kip Averitt, RWaco. Averitt re­signed ear­lier this year for health rea­sons.

Cyrus Reed, con­ser­va­tion di­rec­tor of the Lone Star chap­ter of the Sierra Club, said Fraser, who served on Nat­u­ral Re­sources last ses­sion, is open-minded on en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues.

“He is a con­ser­va­tive and, gen­er­ally, con­ser­va­tives be­lieve less govern­ment is bet­ter,” Reed said. “But he sees that some­times the mar­ket doesn’t work.”

Fraser takes over a com- mit­tee that han­dles ma­jor wa­ter-re­lated projects, such as pipe­lines and reser­voirs, and air qual­ity is­sues, like the con­struc­tion of wind farms and an on­go­ing fra­cas be­tween state and fed­eral reg­u­la­tors about Texas’ way of per­mit­ting pol­lu­tion by power plants and chem­i­cal and man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­i­ties.

Fraser said he plans to go to Washington to meet with fed­eral of­fi­cials to tell them they should not shut down Texas’ per­mit­ting pro­gram.

Of­fi­cials with the U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency have crit­i­cized Texas’ pro­gram as too lax.

“I think the EPA did a knee­jerk re­ac­tion,” Fraser said. “We need to show them the pro­gram we have in place can be a good model, not only en­vi­ron­men­tally, but also for job growth.”

De­whurst and Fraser said they want to de­velop a state en­ergy plan that ex­am­ines the state’s gen­er­a­tion mix and puts more em­pha­sis on nat­u­ral gas and other do­mes­tic sources of power.

In other com­mit­tee changes:

Carona be­comes chair­man of the Busi­ness and Com­merce Com­mit­tee, pre­vi­ously chaired by Fraser.

Sen. Mike Jack­son, R-La Porte, who had been chair­man of the Nom­i­na­tions Com­mit­tee, takes over the helm of the Eco­nomic Devel­op­ment Com­mit­tee.

Jack­son is re­placed as Nom­i­na­tions chair­man by Sen. Robert Deuell, R-Greenville, who pre­vi­ously had no chair­man­ship.

Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, re­places Wil­liams as chair­man of the Ad­min­is­tra­tion Com­mit­tee, the panel that man­ages the Se­nate’s busi­ness af­fairs and rules.

Sen. Chris Har­ris, R-Ar­ling­ton, moves from the chair­man­ship of the Eco­nomic De- vel­op­ment Com­mit­tee to head the Ju­rispru­dence Com­mit­tee, which has been chaired by Went­worth.

Sen. Kirk Wat­son, D-Austin, re­mains as vice chair­man of the Trans­porta­tion and Home­land Se­cu­rity Com­mit­tee and is as­signed to the pow­er­ful Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mit­tee — an im­por­tant po­si­tion be­cause his district in­cludes the Uni­ver­sity of Texas at Austin.

“I’ve wanted to be on Higher Ed since I came into the Se­nate,” Wat­son said.

Lt. Gov. David De­whurst shuf­fled top posts in 8 com­mit­tees.

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