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TUNNELL, BYRON M.

TUNNELL, BYRON M. (1925–2000). Byron M. Tunnell, 64th speaker of the Texas House of Representatives and Texas railroad commissioner, was born in Tyler, Texas, on October 14, 1925. His father H. B. Tunnell was for years a used-car dealer in Tyler. Byron graduated from Tyler High School in 1943 and joined the Naval Air Corps, seeing service as a tail gunner in the European Theater of Operations during World War II. After receiving an honorable discharge in January 1946 he studied law at Tyler Junior College and Baylor University, receiving his law degree from the latter institution in 1952.

Tunnell returned to Tyler and served as an assistant district attorney from 1952 to 1955 before entering private practice. He took an active role in various civic organizations, and founded a Legal Aid clinic in Tyler to provide legal assistance to those who could not otherwise afford it. Tunnell continued to practice law in Tyler after he was elected to the Texas House in 1956. In 1959 his friend Bob Bullockqv, the future lieutenant governor of Texas, resigned from the House and moved to Tyler to join Tunnell's firm; forty years later Tunnell delivered one of two eulogies at Bullock's funeral. Tunnell was elected speaker in January 1963, during his fourth consecutive term in the House. During his two-year tenure as speaker, the legislature created the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and transferred what would become Padre Island National Seashore to the federal government; but Tunnell, whose sartorial trademark was a white necktie, is best remembered for helping professionalize the image of the House by instituting a dress code. "We had kids running around and people eating sack lunches and that sort of stuff," he recalled later. "My rules removed everyone from the floor except the members, and there was no more eating and reading the paper. Also, men had to wear a suit and tie."

In January 1965 Gov. John Connally persuaded Ernest O. Thompson, who had served thirty-two years on the Railroad Commission, to resign because of failing health and appointed Tunnell to serve the remaining two years of Thompson's unexpired six-year term. The surprise announcement of Tunnell's appointment, coming just a week before he was expected to win reelection as speaker, cleared the way for Ben Barnes, a Connally ally who had managed Tunnell's campaign for speaker, to assume that role himself.

Tunnell was subsequently elected twice to full terms on the commission and in 1972 received the annual Hats Off! Award from the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association (TIPRO), but his tenure on the commission was marred by the energy crisis of the early 1970s, which brought hard times for the Texas oil and gas industry. Tunnell repeatedly criticized the federal government for fixing the price of natural gas so low as to discourage drilling and cause depletion of reserves; for relaxing controls on the importation of foreign oil, which kept an artificial ceiling on domestic oil prices; and for allowing environmental concerns to hamper oil exploration offshore and in Alaska. Tunnell also took Congress to task for cutting the oil and gas depletion allowance from 27.5 percent to 22 percent in 1969 and thereby depriving the industry of money it could have used for exploration.

Tunnell resigned from the commission on September 15, 1973, less than two weeks before it issued its notorious "100 percent flow-through" order in the Lo-Vaca case. During the previous winter the Lo-Vaca Gathering Co., a subsidiary of Coastal States Gas Corporation (now Coastal Corporation) and the sole distributor of natural gas for South and Central Texas, had found itself unable to fulfill its contracts to supply gas to four million users. In January 1973 Austin, San Antonio, and the Lower Colorado River Authority had had to resort to burning costly fuel oil to keep their electrical generators running, and the University of Texas at Austin closed for a week to conserve fuel. The commission's order suspended Lo-Vaca's contracts and allowed the company to charge customers higher prices for gas. In the winter of 1973–1974 gas prices doubled and tripled, and the Railroad Commission became the target of criticism from lawmakers and the public.

After his resignation Tunnell became a vice president and lobbyist for Tenneco, Inc., a Houston-based oil and gas company. In 1995 Gov. George W. Bush appointed Tunnell to overhaul the troubled Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse. Tunnell's first wife, the former Bette Lemmons, died in 1988. Tunnell died of cancer at his home on Lake Palestine on March 7, 2000. He was survived by his second wife, Jan, and two daughters and is buried in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Austin American-Statesman, March 8, 2000. Dallas Morning News, March 8, 2000. Texas State Cemetery website.

Martin Donell Kohout

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Martin Donell Kohout, "TUNNELL, BYRON M.," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ftu32), accessed November 23, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.