More Than Half Way Done at the Texas Legislature... And What Have They Done?

By Cyrus Reed

Consider this your mid-session report. The 140-day legislative session is now more than half over and things are well... bewildering. There are the “Uri” response bills,  attempts by leadership to restrict voting rights, continued attacks on cities  radioactive waste, and the more mundane budgetary items... it’s hard to keep up. 

Blackout response is still a thing, but where is it all going?

First off, the full Senate met with virtually no notice, passed a bill (SB 2142) to essentially order the PUC to reprice the ERCOT electric bills that occurred during much of the blackout crisis, a move that is considered unconstitutional by some lawyers. 

Speaker of the House Dade Phelan essentially announced the House would not take up the repricing bill, but would consider other solutions to the high bills millions of Texans have faced. 

The one PUC Commissioners who had not resigned suddenly was asked to resign, in large part because he was taped on a call with Wall Street investors announcing, not only that his job was safe, but that he would put the full force of the PUC into making sure the electric bills assigned during the crisis were not repriced.

Other bills are moving fast. 

Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, angered by Sen. Kelly Hancock voting against SB 2142, has instead been moving bills by Sen. Charles Schwertner, and last week the Senate passed SB 2154, which would increase the number of PUC commissioners from three (though essentially there are none today) to five. There seems to be little interest in the House thus far at a major restructuring of the Public Utility Commission, however. 

The major Senate bill on ERCOT and the PUC is SB 3 also by Sen. Schwertner, which was debated on the Senate floor on Monday, March 29th and passed out on a 31-0 vote. You can see our testimony here. The bill has a lot of good in it, including required weatherization of both power plants and the natural gas supply system, and an emergency alert system for future storms. It has one concerning provision that would assign some extra costs to renewable generators. During the debate, several  Senators offered important amendments, including some of our suggestions on energy efficiency goals and weatherization of homes, as well as boosting demand response and distributed energy resources like local solar and storage. Unfortunately, only a few good amendments were added to the bill, and the anti-renewable provision assigning additional costs remains. The bill will soon be sent over to the House for consideration. 

Meanwhile, in the House, Tuesday will be a banner day, with most of their major “Uri” response bills on the House floor. These will be, HB 10, HB 11, HB 12, HB 13, HB 14, HB 16 and HB 17, while the remaining priority bill HB 14, is likely to be passed out of committee this week. 

While Sierra Club is supportive of HB 10 (ERCOT reforms), HB 11 (weatherization of power plants), HB 12 (Reliability Council), HB 13 (Emergency Alert System), HB 16 (no wholesale index pricing for consumers), we are opposed to HB 17 (by Rep. Deshotel), which (as currently written) would ban cities from being able to incentivize alternatives to  fracked gas hookups and appliances. We expect an amendment could be offered on the House floor which would make the bill less bad by Rep. Chris Turner, which would make clear cities can continue to work on clean energy, energy efficiency, and electric vehicle promotion and ordinances. We will support other amendments such as one that would sunset the bill in 2027. It makes no sense to take away city and county tools to move our state toward cleaner forms of energy, given the widespread failures of fracked gas and its climate impacts. 

Similarly, while HB 14 was promised as a way to weatherize fracked gas wells and supply lines, the bill as filed is simply a mapping exercise with no required investment by gas companies. We are urging Energy Resources Chair Craig Goldman to put some teeth into his bill and make gas companies do their part to avoid future blackouts. The bill is currently stuck in committee as they work on the bill. 

Speaking of which, there are literally eight different bills that are being discussed in the House and Senate on a concept called “securitization” where, essentially, a state bonding authority issues revenue bonds to utilities to pay for storm hardening, pay off big ERCOT bills, or weatherizing equipment, and then those bonds get paid back over time by… any guesses?... customers. While Texas has used securitization before for things like storm hardening, the bills would significantly expand this financial tool. Sierra Club has been neutral on the bills, but we insist that consumer protections be added to the bills, and that options for also funding demand-side investments like energy efficiency and demand response be added so that consumers can benefit more directly. 

In addition to these bills, the House is contemplating creating a state-backed loan program through the Texas Water Development Board through HB 2000 by Rep. Dan Huberty, as well as a separate constitutional amendment. The bill is concerning because it is contemplated that state-back bonding could be used for private entities -- power generators and oil wells come to mind -- which could actually impact our competitive energy market. We have asked Huberty to remove loans for private entities within ERCOT and to add an energy efficiency loan program for homeowners so that they can be covered as well. 

Separately, we continue to push for the enactment of good bills like HB 1533 (Reynolds), an energy efficiency residential loan program, and SB 243 (Eckardt) and HB 4556 (Anchia), which would expand the state’s energy efficiency goal for utilities to 1% of energy consumption. 

Rad waste

In the middle of all the other issues, both the House and Senate took up companion bills on radioactive waste (HB 2692 by Rep. Landgraf and SB 1046 by Sen. Birdwell). The Sierra Club was there to testify and express our concerns. The bills are complicated in that they include a provision to ban the import of high-level radioactive waste (which we support) but expand the import of low-level radioactive waste while decreasing surcharges that help fund future clean-up of radioactive waste. HB 2692 is out of the Committee on Environmental Regulation but stuck in Calendars, as interestingly former Speaker Tom Craddick (a noted conservative) opposes the bill due to concerns by oil and gas companies about radioactive waste. In the Senate, the bill had a hearing last week but has not advanced out of committee yet. 

No greenhouse gas regulations by pesky cities

In another effort to squash cities trying to protect the environment, Sen. Birdwell introduced SB 1261, which states that no city or political subdivision may regulate greenhouse gases either directly or indirectly. We, and many others, were there to testify against the bill since it would directly impact the climate action plans approved by Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and Houston among other cities. Sen. Birdwell indicated the bill might be written a little too broadly. 

Worker rights

Sierra Club also signed up against SB 14 (Sen. Brandon Creighton), which would limit cities’ ability to regulate worker safety and pay issues at the local level. Both the Workers Defense Fund, the AFL-CIO, and other unions were there to testify against the bill which would undermine local efforts like paid sick leave and local wages. 

Voter purge

While we continue to work on priority environmental issues, Sierra Club has also joined with thousands of Texans fighting against the effort to make it harder to vote, and easier to raise charges of “fraud.” This past week, two of the worst bills were up for hearing... Kind of... 

First, Rep. Briscoe Cain laid out HB 6, a “voting fraud” bill that basically would make it easier to claim that voter fraud exists, and prosecute it despite little or no evidence. If passed, the bill will lead to endless lawsuits designed to reduce voter access and intimidate voters. In a strange and eventful day last week, hundreds of activists, including former U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, descended on the capitol along with activists from Texas Rising, the Texas Civil Rights Project, and many others, including representatives of the Sierra Club, to testify against the bill. However, Cain, who is the chair of the committee, failed to announce when the hearing would restart, violating a basic rule of good notice, and was forced to cancel the hearing suddenly, or risk the future of the bill. The bill will be back with a hearing, perhaps as early as this week. 

Not to be outdone, the Senate brought out SB 7 by Sen. Bryan Hughes, which, due to a procedure by several Democratic senators, was also initially cancelled, and then rescheduled on Friday. Again, hundreds of Texans descended on the capitol on Friday, with Lone Star Chapter Executive Committee member David Griggs testifying against the bill on behalf of the Sierra Club. The bill is quite similar to the awful anti-voter bill passed recently in Georgia, and is part of an effort to stifle voter access, particularly in large urban centers which tend to vote for Democratic candidates. Predictably, the Senate Committee on State Affairs passed the bill out of committee immediately. 

The Budget

The budget is moving, with the Senate Committee on Finance approving a state budget for two years, and the House Committee on Appropriations taking up their version of the budget this week. In general, the House version seems to be kinder to natural resource agencies, including fully funding the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan (TERP) for clean air. We worked closely with several members in the House to get good amendments on the bill to boost funding for clean air and water. 

Still remaining is the issue of increasing funding for well bonding. Both versions of the budget only provide enough funds to plug 1,000 abandoned wells per year, even though there are more than 6,000 abandoned oil and gas wells awaiting plugging right now, and another 20,000 that are out of compliance and will need plugging soon. Along those lines, the Sierra Club is supporting two bills - HB 2868 (Rep. Longoria) and SB 954 (Sen. Hinojosa) - that would finally increase bonding requirements on oil and gas wells. (see testimony here). We are leading an effort to increase funding to get another $30 million for well bonding. 

One big issue with the budget is that neither version incorporates the money just approved federally under the American Prosperity Act. Instead, the Senate and House are setting up (through separate legislation) a procedure to assess federal funding. Eventually we expect the budgets approved by the Senate and House to incorporate at least some federal funding, but as an example, our efforts to ensure that federal funding going to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs prioritizes weatherization has fallen largely on deaf ears since leadership seems to be ignoring the American Prosperity Act for now. 

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