Legislative Update: Things Are Moving Fast Under the Pink Dome

Texas Capitol

Seems like it has been awhile since we mentioned it would be rather slow at the beginning as the law does not allow the State Senate or State House to actually consider bills until after 60 days of legislatin’ have passed. Well they have passed, and we are finally seeing hundreds of bills being considered in hearings, and even getting approved on the Senate floor.

We have passed the March 8 deadline for filing bills. The number of bills filed this year was indeed massive, with some 4,650 House bills, and some 2,450 Senate bills getting filed by the deadline. We know you are anxious to know our positions on many of these bills, and we are working on it -- keep tabs on our list of bills and future blogs to see where we stand!

SB 500
One of the first bills to pass the Senate was SB 500 -- the “Hurricane Harvey” supplemental funding bill - which was approved unanimously by all 31 Senators last week after a lightning fast public hearing earlier in the week. The bill spends $4.3 billion out of the state’s Economic Stabilization, or Rainy Day, Fund. It also spends another $1.65 billion out of the Texas Infrastructure Resiliency Fund (which doesn’t yet exist until other legislation is approved), including $200 million for a matching grant to the Army Corps of Engineers flood control projects (more than $2 billion from federal funds), mainly the medicaid shortfall, and another $2.4 billion in regular “general revenue.” Thus, the supplemental bill is a massive injection of cash for a state that usually spends only modest amounts on the “supplemental” bill. Hurricane Harvey was a massive storm. A pretty good graphic that explains the bill can be found here.

While the Sierra Club supported the bill (it has funding for reconstructing the many parklands and coastal areas ravaged by the storm), and pays for important state flood risk maps and some needed flood planning,  we are concerned that money is being set aside for an Army Corps of Engineers match for federal flood control projects like the “Coastal Spine” which have yet to be approved, as are another $660 million for flood control projects still being developed.

SB 500 is not yet law. It will be discussed on Monday, March 18, in the House Committee on Appropriations, which will likely replace SB 500 with their own version of the bill, meaning horse-trading is not far off.

HB 1
Also being discussed by House Appropriations will be HB 1 - the statewide budget bill for 2020 and 2021. Even more massive than SB 500, HB 1 as proposed has many of Sierra Club’s priorities embedded in it, including an important increase in parks and wildlife funding, new funding for TCEQ mobile monitoring equipment, and funding for the Low-Income Vehicle Repair and Replacement Program (LIRAP). Many of Sierra Club’s priorities -- local park grants, additional clean air grants for the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan (TERP), and studies on oil and gas pollution -- are not yet in the bill, and we will be working on the House floor soon to try and get our priorities funded.

[Update: Last week the House Committee on Appropriations overwhelmingly approved the committee substitutes to HB 1 and SB 500 and they will be discussed on the House floor. Sierra Club is working to get several of our priority areas added to HB 1 through the amendment process.]

Parks & Wildlife
Today, another Sierra Club priority gets attention: guaranteed present and future funding for Texas Parks and Wildlife. The Senate Committee on Finance will be taking up and considering both SB 26 and SJR 26 by Kolkhorst to (finally) constitutionally dedicate the sporting goods sales tax to fund our state parks and related wildlife areas. We expect these bills to get bipartisan support and move soon to the Senate floor. If passed, voters would decide in November whether to fully fund parks going forward.

Interestingly, and somewhat related, we testified last week “on” (not “for” or “against”) HB 1422 which would continue the Historic Commission for another 12 years but also transfer eight properties from Texas Parks and Wildlife to the Historic Commission. The slightly good news is that the Committee Substitute to the bill would only transfer six of the properties, but Sierra Club still believes that three of the proposed transfers should not occur, including the San Jacinto Battleground. (See testimony here).

Flooding & Green Infrastructure
Now back to that flood control business. The Texas Senate is on a fast track to pass legislation on flood response and clean-up (SB 6), flood project funding (SB 7), and state and regional flood planning (SB 8). These bills were introduced on March 7, immediately referred, heard, and voted out of the Senate Water & Rural Affairs Committee on March 11. They will be considered on the Senate floor on Tuesday, March 19.

At the hearing, Sierra Club was there to support SB 6, but also to express some concerns about SB 7 and SB 8. These are generally good bills, but we have not taken a position for or against SB 7 or SB 8 because they could be strengthened to make sure that "nonstructural" (sometimes called "nature-based" or "green infrastructure") flood mitigation measures get strong consideration in flood project funding and planning and to enhance opportunities for public input into funding decisions and the planning process. 

Want to make a difference? Calls to Senate offices on Monday, March 18, are needed to encourage Senators to support any amendments proposed to SB 7 and SB 8 that support nonstructural flood measures and enhanced public participation in flood planning.

In a surprise move, the House Committee on Natural Resources scheduled the House version of SB 7 and 8 in an emergency meeting on Monday to take up HB 13, and HJR 4. Sierra Club is supportive though again we are calling for the inclusion of “non-structural” flood control language in the bill. The Committee did pass both bills to the House Floor without our request (see testimony here).

Protecting Local Democracy
Also expected on the Senate floor next week is SB 15, a bill that prevents local governments from adopting any ordinances related to employment, benefits, or work policy. The bill is a reaction to the attempt by some local governments like Austin and San Antonio to require private employers to offer sick leave, but is so broadly written it would even “preempt” local governments from taking action on policies related to criminal background checks. Sierra Club stood with our allies in opposing this dangerous form of state intervention.

We are seeing some action on bills we like. For example, bills that would allow large electric utilities outside of ERCOT to implement smart meters and recover costs got hearings last week in the House Committee on State Affairs. In addition, this week their companion bills will be heard in the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce. The bills allow utilities like El Paso Electric, Entergy, and SWEPCO to be able to use modern advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) meters which should allow better control of customer’s energy use and incorporation of modern technology. Sierra Club is supporting SB 454 (Hughes), SB 512 (Rodriguez), and SB 566 (Perry), just as we did HB 853 (Moody), HB 986 (Price), and HB 1595 (Paddie) last week.

More complicated in the electric space was HB 1397, a bill by Chair Dade Phelan that had a hearing last week where Sierra Club expressed concern, as did some unlikely allies like the Texas Chemical Council and Texas Association of Manufacturers. The bill would authorize vertically-integrated utilities to pass an electric generation “rider” on what they charge ratepayers if approved by the Public Utility Commission, bypassing the normal ratemaking process. We are concerned that the bill be made much more specific to avoid encouraging some utilities to construct costly and unnecessary natural gas plants that could be built quickly with costs recovered if this bill becomes law. A copy of our testimony can be found here.

Pro-Polluter Bill
Of even greater concern is a bill by Rep. Kyle Kacal that is up for debate next week in the the House Committee on Environmental Regulation. HB 3114 is yet another attempt to undermine the ability of citizens to obtain a contested case hearing on air and water permits through an impartial hearings examiner at the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH). The bill would actually require TCEQ to stop using SOAH judges to conduct hearings, and instead has the TCEQ directly contract with private attorneys to preside over permit hearings. An attorney that regularly represents industry, or even an attorney that regularly represents environmental organizations, simply cannot be expected at the same time to serve as an impartial judge in TCEQ permit hearings.  

HB 3114 would even undermine the surface water rights permitting process, since it would impact surface water rights hearings which involve the direct adjudication of private property rights. Such hearings have historically been afforded greater procedural protections for the affected public than environmental permits. HBl 3114 improperly erases that distinction, and imposes significant new constraints on the hearing process for water rights, such as statutory limits on the duration of hearings, and a presumption that a water right application should be granted.

Sierra Club will be there Wednesday with our allies to oppose this dangerous proposal. We encourage you to contact members of the Environmental Regulation Committee and let them know that taking away our rights to contest permits through an impartial administrative judge should not be on the table.

Tax Breaks for Fossil Fuels and Renewable Resources

Also on the agenda for next week is whether or not to continue the “Texas Economic Development Act” which industry in Texas has used for years to invest in new developments while getting a break on property taxes. Often referred to as Chapter 312 and Chapter 313, the Sierra Club is not taking a position on whether to extend the tax breaks going forward or not, but we don’t want the Texas Legislature to unfairly cut out wind and solar development as some conservative groups like the Texas Public Policy Foundation are suggesting. Thus, in the Committee on Ways and Means, a variety of proposals will be discussed, including several that would extend agreements for local property tax breaks into the future. However, one -- HB 2799 by Rep. Scott Sanford -- would impact future wind and solar development by making it difficult for those projects to get future property tax breaks. Sanford’s bill actually has some good transparency language but we will be there to suggest he not pick winners and losers. Our view is either end the programs for everyone -- fossil fuel projects and renewables alike -- or extend it for everyone.