Texas Lege: The Current Lowdown

Photo Credit: Jno.skinner, Wikipedia Commons

The capitol is picking up steam in this very strange, COVID-induced legislative session. 

The top priority has rapidly shifted to the emergency reaction to last week’s state-wide deep freeze caused by the polar vortex, which left millions of Texans without power, heating, and water (for some, this lasted days), and at least three dozen deaths.

Both the House and the Senate have scheduled an emergency invited-only testimony on Thursday, mainly focused on ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas) and the Public Utility Commission (PUC). After a horrific week of sub-freezing temperature, treacherous roads and ill-equipped cars that left some four million Texans trapped in their homes without power and water  due to poor planning and the failure of electric generators to winterize their plants. There are many talks of launching investigations into the suddenly dirty word of ERCOT, the once largely unknown entity upon which Governor Greg Abbott is now laying the most blame for the crisis. Our view is that the policies that led to the problems come from the PUC, and ultimately leadership -- the Governor who appointed the PUC Commissioners, and set up our energy policy for the state, beginning with the decision to deregulate our market more than 20 years ago. 

Fortunately, there are solutions. We’ll get to that in a moment. Importantly, the Senate and House have adopted their rules of procedure, committees have been named, and the budget hearing has begun. Let's dive into that first.

The Rules of Procedure: Attending the Capitol During the Pandemic

The rules are simple, but not pandemic friendly. In the Senate if you want to testify or turn in written testimony, you do the usual:. you show up to the capitol, register your position, and either turn in written comments or give them orally (or both). You must wear a mask, and you must get a free COVID test in a tent outside the Capitol to get in, and proceed with a wrist band to prove your negativity. It’s important to note that these rules are not loved by all Senators, and thus far Democrats in particular have called for virtual testimonies for all committees given the pandemic. The Senate’s Redistricting Committee is the only committee that currently allows for virtual participation. (The rules could change for “normal” committees, but I am not counting on it.)

The House gave more flexibility. They will allow some virtual testimony if the individual chair of the committee allows it, but it will likely be limited to a few invited folks per bill. They will also allow people to register a position without having to physically go to the Capitol, and to submit written testimony through a portal, rather than having to go to the capitol with your 15 or 20 physical copies. 

The Deep Freeze

Following last week’s frightening deep freeze, Gov. Abbott, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and Speaker of the House Dade Phelan all announced upcoming legislative hearings and investigations into the events of the past few days. 

In particular, the Governor teetered from elder-statesman calling for calm, to suddenly laying entire blame on ERCOT-- our deregulated fossil-fuel dependent electric system that he has consistently supported-- while deflecting his own role in Texas’ severe lack of preparedness and inability to anticipate the impacts of the polar vortex.

There will be a series of hearings next week, including one on Thursday -- a joint hearing between the Committee on Energy Resources and the Committee on State Affairs in the House and a similar one at the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce. The House committee is allowing public input through their online portal, and we strongly encourage all Texans impacted by the storm to submit comments. We submitted our own testimony emphasizing solutions to prevent another power crisis.

The Budget

The State and House version of the state budget have been released and committee hearings have already begun. In fact, Sierra Club will be officially submitting comments and testifying at the Senate Finance Committee on several agencies, including the Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC), Texas Water Development Board and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Links to our testimony can be found here. 

The budgets are very similar in both chambers, but with slight differences in some agencies. These are only the opening gambits, and additional public hearings and opportunities will be held. This session we are focusing on abandoned well clean-up, more inspectors, more air quality monitors, and nature-based flood infrastructure as some of our top priorities.  

The Committees 

The Committees are named in both the House and the Senate. There are really no big surprises in the Senate. Senator Jane Nelson (R) from Flower Mound still leads the Finance Committee. Senator Brian Birdwell (R-Waco) leads the Natural Resources and Economic Development Committee (where virtually all oil and gas and chemical plant issues go) and Kelly Hancock leads the Business and Commerce Committee (where all business and electric issues usually end up). Charles Perry (Lubbock-R)  was reappointed to the Water, Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, and Paul Bettencourt to the Local Government Committee. We expect the Local Government Committee to spend most of its time attacking local government rather than supporting regional and community autonomy. Predictably, in the Senate all the main committees are chaired by Republicans, and all committees are tilted toward the Republican Majority. 

In the House Dade Phelan was less predictable. While the majority of committees are chaired by Republicans, Democratic Chairs were named for some committees and committees are more balanced generally.  All the same, it will be challenging to get our main issues heard and get bills out of the committees we are involved in.

First, the Appropriations Committee will be led by Greg Bonnen (R-Republican), the brother of former Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen, who chose not to run again in 2020 following a political scandal. 

Second, the Energy Resources Committee (which handles most oil and gas issues) went to Craig Goldman, a Republican from Fort Worth, while Environmental Regulation was handed to Brooks Landgraf, a rancher from Odessa.. Tracy King, a democrat from Uvalde County, was handed the Natural Resources Committee,where most water issues end up, while fellow Democrat Joe Deshotel was handed the Land and Resource Management committee, which deals with eminent domain and some county development issues. Other key committees include County Affairs (Garnett Coleman, D-Houston), Urban Affairs (Trey Martinez Fisher, D-San Antonio) and State Affairs (Chris Paddie - R), which focuses on electric utility issues.. 

Ken King (R) seized the throne at Parks, Culture and Tourism, which is where the Parks and Wildlife Sunset bill will likely go, while Calendars -- a key committee that often determines whether legislation ever makes it to the house floor is now in the hands of Dustin Burrows (R) from Lubbock. Tax bills will flow to Ways and Means, headed up by Morgan Meyer (R) of Dallas. 

If you are looking for a big theme here, one could surmise that Republicans who decided to initially seek the Speaker position were not rewarded with Chairmanships. Notably absent from the list are former chairs John Cyrier, who used to lead the Parks committee and Lyle Larson, long-time chair of Natural Resources, both of who actively sought the Speakership, at least initially, no longer in leadership roles. 

In the House, while Republicans remain in the majority, most committees are balanced and some bipartisan support will likely be needed to advance legislation. Where Democrats are chair, Republicans are vice-chairs. Where Republicans are chairs, Democrats are vice-chairs. In the Senate, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick has stacked most committees, and the Senate changed the three-fifths rule to the five-ninths rule. This means that if all 18 Republican Senators rally behind any given issue, they can pass any bill that gets to the Senate floor. It turns out that the Lt. Governor’s version of “democracy” can only be achieved by changing the rules so the minority party can’t block bills he wants passed. 

The Good Bills

It is still early in the session to declare the best and worst and ugliest bills. Bills will still be filed up until March 12th, and we likely have seen roughly only half the bills. We are tracking almost 300 bills already, which can be found here. Still, we have our favorites and least favorites, and others we are watching. 

Among our favorites are bills designed to cut down on air pollution and flaring from the oil and gas industry. In particular, Jon Rosenthal’s HB 1452, which would require an end to all routine flaring by 2035; Ron Reynolds requirement that the state develop methane standards through HB 896 or at LEAST study them through HB 897; and bills by Vickie Goodwin and Jessica Gonzalez to finally tax flared gas. (Support those bills here!

HB 711 by Perez and SB 126 by Senator Nathan Johnson would require the state to develop new standards for above-ground storage tanks, like the ones in Houston and Port Neches that collapsed or caught on fire with such disastrous results. (Support that bill here!)

On the clean energy front, Senator Sarah Eckhardt has introduced SB 243, which after 10 years would finally raise energy efficiency goals at utilities to one percent. While that sounds small-- it could really help in future storms. (Support that bill here!)

Eckhardt has also put in place a bill that would create a statewide zero carbon electricity goal by 2035 for the state through SB 304, while Rep. Erin Zweiner just put out a call for TCEQ to develop a climate action plan through HB 1821. Similarly, Senator Jose Menendez has introduced a solar bill of rights for consumers(SB 398) which Sierra Club supports. 

Enforcement of environmental rules and regulations is a big priority of the Lone Star Chapter. Two bills filed in the House would require our main environmental agencies - the Railroad Commission of Texas and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality- to actually take enforcement seriously. HB 1043 by Anchia would finally raise maximum daily fines from $10,000 to $25,000 per day and make other changes that would make enforcement more of a deterrence at the agency, while HB 1820 by Zweiner would similarly raise maximum fines at TCEQ, but also eliminate current “affirmative defense” practices by industry where they claim they couldn’t have prevented an emissions event due to an unforeseen event, and raise fines in the case where there is major injury or deaths that result. 

Sierra Club is also watching important transmission bills, including SB 415 by Senator Hancock, which would allow electric storage to be contracted by utilities for reliability services, and HB 1607 by Drew Darby, which would make changes in the transmission process at ERCOT that could help solve the major congestion problems that have prevented many renewable energy sources from getting their full output to consumers. While we support the intent of both of these proposals, we will be watching the language carefully as they make it through the process. 

The Bad Bills

Not all the bills look so good to us. Of potential concern is SB 601, by Senator Perry, which we are watching carefully. It would create a “consortium” on produced water, the wastewater that results from the fracking process of oil and gas, that would lead to research on how to use the water as a water supply option. While research can be good, we are concerned by the bill’s lack of a public process, limitation on which stakeholders are involved, and failure to also look at water quality issues. Recently, EPA approved the delegation of oil and gas permitting to the State of Texas through action that was required by the legislature and oil and gas companies would love the state to do some research on where to put their fracked wastewater besides sticking it underground. We will be working to better balance this bill as it moves through the process. 

There’s also a series of bills being pushed by gas distribution companies that would prevent actions by local cities or counties that could disadvantage the use of gas in buildings. Two Republicans and one Democrat have filed bills that would all essentially prevent cities from taking actions that could limit gas use, including gas appliances. The bills - HB 1282 by Joe Deshotel, HB 884 by Cody Harris and HB 1501 by Dean -- are similar, though the Deshotel bill is perhaps the most concerning, since it is written so broadly that it could prevent cities or other political subdivisions to take any permitting, regulatory or incentive actions that would have the impact of disadvantaging the use of gas. 

Why is this important? As cities and builders look at new technologies like storage, solar, demand response and electric appliances such as heat pumps, there is a real path to creating buildings that rely on clean energy. This can be important for affordable energy and job creation, but can also lower indoor air pollution, improve statement and reduce carbon emissions created by methane leaks from pipes and even within homes. 

And then there is a head-scratching bill, HB 1683, from Rep. Landgraf, the new chair of Environmental Regulation. In announcing that he would “protect” the oil and gas industry from the new Biden Administration, he has filed a bill that would make it illegal for our state agencies and other political subdivisions to work with federal agencies on environmental enforcement. 

The bill itself is actually illegal. State agencies are required through delegated authority to work with federal agencies when oil and gas companies BREAK the law.  But it’s certainly concerning that the Chairman of Environmental Regulation does not at all seem interested in helping protect our environment or resources. Instead, Chairman Landgraf is more interested in protecting oil and gas companies from federal enforcement instead of worrying about making our state agencies stronger so they can work to protect communities from oil and gas spills, air pollution and toxic wastewater. 

Other bills opposed by the Sierra Club are a bit outside purely “environmental” issues as we continue to see bills aimed at weakening the power of local government, including not allowing them to hire lobbyists to represent their interests. Twin bills filed in the House -- HB 749 by Middleton --  and Senate -- SB 234 by Bob Hall -- are aimed at taking away local voices, incredibly ironic given the recent trend in the House and Senate to go after local control and democracy. 

There are literally hundreds of bills aimed at either making voting easier in the State of Texas or harder. While we are tracking these bills, the best resource is with our partners at Common Cause and other groups. Want to learn more or get involved in the Texas legislature? Sign up for our Legislative Training Series!