Early voting for the March 2018 primary begins today, and there are a few offices on the ballot that might be a little confusing for a first, second or even third-time voter.
To prepare you for the primaries, here’s an explainer of what six of the more obscure positions you will see on the ballot actually do.
Formed in 1891, the railroad commission was created by the legislature to regulate just that — railroads. About 30 years later, its power expanded to cover pipelines, which was the first step in regulating what it almost exclusively covers now: the oil and gas industry. The commission is made up of three commissioners who are elected to six-year, staggered terms. Within the oil and gas industry, the commission regulates pipelines, drilling, mining and exploration to protect natural resources and the environment.
The comptroller — elected to a four-year term — is the state’s “chief financial officer” and serves as a chief tax collector, accountant, revenue estimator and treasurer. One of the office’s major functions is putting together the biennial revenue estimate that the legislature uses to form the budget. To the average person, the comptroller serves as a tax auditor that ensures people are paying their taxes while protecting them from being treated unfairly. For college students, the office administers the state’s college savings programs including the Texas Tuition Promise Fund.
One of the oldest offices in Texas, predating the state’s entry into the union, the Texas General Land Office manages the resources that support the Permanent School Fund. The PSF has served as a long-time revenue source for Texas’ public schools. The land commissioner regulates the sale and use of state lands by private investors, which subsequently provides a source of constant funding to the PSF. The commissioner of this office is also elected to a four-year term.
The two primary functions of the Texas Department of Agriculture are consumer protection and agricultural regulation. For consumers, it regulates fuel pumps and all “weights and measures devices,” such as grocery store scales, to ensure consumers are never overcharged for products. The office also certifies organic produce and leads the development of statewide broadband services. The agriculture commissioner is elected to a four-year term.
There are four commissioners who represent four separate precincts of Travis County, and they are headed up by the county judge who is elected county-wide. Together, they are the Commissioners Court, and they serve as the policy-making and administrative branch of county government. However, despite being called a “court,” it is not a judicial court of law. They set the county tax rate along with building and maintaining county roads and facilities, such as the jail and courts. The commissioners and judge are each elected for four-year terms that coincide with the governor.
Justices of the peace handle most small criminal and civil cases for the county. For civil cases, this includes lawsuits with up to $10,000 in dispute over issues such as debts, property, car accidents and landlord-tenant disputes. Criminally, they handle all Class C criminal misdemeanors that are punishable by fines only, such as traffic tickets. Travis County has five justices of the peace that are elected by individual precincts to four-year terms.