Railroad Commissioner Reluctantly Resigns

Elizabeth Ames Jones is running for a San Antonio senate seat, but must live in the "capital of the State" to stay Railroad Commissioner. People laughed when she questioned the phrase, but does she have a point about its modern definition?
Tue February 14, 2012 8:14 pm
Texas Railroad Commission

If you've ever felt like the I-35 corridor between Austin and San Antonio has become a single metropolitan area, you've got an ally in Texas Railroad Commisioner and state senate candidate Elizabeth Ames Jones.

Make that FORMER Texas Railroad Commisioner Elizabeth Ames Jones, who as TEXAS MONTHLY 's Paul Burka first reported , resigned her seat on Monday due to controversy over her place of residence.

Jones had officially declared her home to be in San Antonio, where she is mounting a primary challenge in District 25 against incumbent Republican senator Jeff Wentworth. A San Antonio native, Jones had previously served two-and-half terms in the Texas House, representing the city's northeast District 121.

But according to a lawsuit filed against the state by Austin-based attorney Bill Aleshire (a longtime Democrat, but also, Jones's campaign said, a Wentworth donor), Jones could not continue serving on the Railroad Commission (which comes with a six-figure salary) if she did not reside in the the "capital of the State," as per the Texas constitution.

That prompted Jones to send a six-page letter to Attorney General Greg Abbott, requesting an official legal ruling on the matter.

Among other things, the letter said that "while this provision may seem straightforward at first glance, its meaning is unclear," and, "if a statewide official lives in Rollingwood or Westlake, is he living 'at the Capital of the State'? What about Pflugerville or Round Rock? Or, perhaps, Kyle, San Marcos, New Braunfels or San Antonio?"

"Like most sentient beings who haven't been huffing volatile organic compounds at a fracking site," wrote Forrest Wilder of the Texas Observer  (referencing Jones's stance on fracking regulations during her tenure as Railroad Commissioner), "Jones has for the past seven years interpreted 'Capital of the State' to mean Austin."

And as the Austin American-Statesman 's Mike Ward noted two weeks ago, "a February 1957 opinion by Attorney General Will Wilson declared the 'capital of the State' to be Austin."

Right or wrong, Jones's decision to resign became a matter of political expedience. Her statement, which also included several unrelated swipes at Wentworth, was anything but conciliatory:

Since I announced my candidacy for SD 25, Jeff Wentworth has attacked my home, my husband and my honor. Although the Texas Constitution provides that state officials who reside in Austin working on state business don’t forfeit their voting residence back home, Senator Wentworth and his Democrat lawyer have ignored the Constitution and continued their baseless attacks. To put an end to this, I asked the Attorney General to issue an opinion vindicating my right to finish my term on the Texas Railroad Commission. Wentworth’s lawyers, however, filed a frivolous lawsuit on the issue, knowing that filing such a suit would preclude the Attorney General from responding to my request until the suit is resolved.

As disingenuous as Jones's position on the definition of "capital of the State" may have been, does she have a point? 2012 is not 1957, let alone 1876. The Texas constitution certainly could not have imagined suburbs, highways, or routine two-hour commutes.

Strictly speaking, Plugerville or Cedar Park are no more Austin than Dripping Springs or San Antonio, and San Antonio is no further from Austin than some Houston or Dallas suburbs are from Houston and Dallas. In fact, the Greater Austin-San Antonio Corridor Council has been taking steps to have the two cities recognized by the federal government as a single "consolidated statistical area."

Ironically, as the Observer's Wilder noted, Wentworth's current senate district already stretches into South Austin, so it wasn't actually necessary for Jones to return to San Antonio, though she couldn't have used her current residence in Austin's upscale Tarrytown neighborhood.

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