Texas lawmakers focus on oil boom

By Michael Brick
Houston Chronicle

AUSTIN — In a preview of priorities for the next legislative session, state lawmakers at a hearing on Tuesday examined the ways the oil boom is changing life in Texas.

Since the legislature last convened in 2013, budget officials have reported an unexpectedly large windfall from taxes on the petroleum industry, filling state coffers with a multi-billion dollar opportunity to address issues like the water shortage, transportation gridlock and troubled public schools. But industry practices have also wrecked roads, strained infrastructure, vexed police departments, drained water resources, polluted the air and set off knotty disputes among landowners, royalty claimants and oil companies.

Above all, the oil boom has emerged as a singular force driving the state’s great challenge of the 21st century, the post-urbanization population surge.

The industry now employs more than 400,000 people in the state, at an average salary of $120,000 according figures presented at the hearing by the Texas Oil & Gas Association.

“These are good jobs,” said James LeBas, an economist and lobbyist for the trade group.

In addition to more than $48 billion in salaries and wages, LeBas told the committee, the industry pays $11 billion a year in royalties to 570,000 families statewide, an average of $20,000 per family. The Rainy Day Fund, a state account financed by industry taxes to support major emergency initiatives, is on track to reach $12 billion.

“People will look back at this in twenty years, this will be seen as part of the golden age,” he said. But “oil and gas is not a nice steady business, the way grocery stores might be.”

The committee chairman, James L. Keffer, Republican of Granbury, paused to underscore the industry’s role in almost single-handedly hoisting the state above the national recession.

But Rep. Lon Burnham, Democrat of Fort Worth, cautioned that the current boom may, like every preceding boom, end in a bust.
“We’re probably too dependent on this industry for tax revenue,” Burnham said. “Just because things are going good right now doesn’t mean they’ll be going good three, five, ten years from now.’’