Legislative Update: Bright Spots In the Darkness

Texas Capitol at night by Al Braden

Photo: Texas Capitol at night, by Al Braden.

By Matt Johnson & Cyrus Reed

Since there was no update last week, we’ve got two weeks to catch you up on. Let’s dive right in! It has been another heart-wrenching week in Austin. As GOP leaders and special interests flex their political muscles, several bills attacking voting rights, LGBTQ+ Texans, and increasing censorship continued to move. Before we get to the bad, though, let’s acknowledge that there are bright spots to hold onto, and it’s important not to get stuck down in the darkness.

BRIGHT SPOT 1: There is rare bipartisan interest in funding state parks… a lot. To give you some context, in the last state budget, state parks received just $7 million to fund new land acquisition. The debate this session, by contrast, centers around funding in the $500 million and $1 billion range. This is a great place to be, and we will continue to do our part to advocate for stronger and more sustained funding for state parks, which play such an important role in the quality of life for millions of Texans and protecting our environment. This week, the Senate passed two bills to do just that: SJR 74 and SB 1648 by Sen. Tan Parker passed easily, and both Rep. Armando Walle (HB 4177) and Rep. Ken King  (HB 3801  and HJR 154) had hearings this week on similar bills. 

BRIGHT SPOT 2: We have been a part of some great hearings on several good bills on energy efficiency and demand response - two key ingredients to a more stable grid and lower utility bills. SB 258 (Eckhardt) would increase our state’s energy efficiency goal for the first time since 2011, while SB 114 (Menendez) – which would set a goal for residential demand response - and SB 2453 (Menendez) - which would raise the energy code statewide -  were heard in committee recently and seem to have legislative legs. HB 4811 (Anchia), which would create the energy efficiency council to help utilities share best practices, was voted out of committee and could be on the House floor soon! Also, HB 2408 and HB 2409 (Reynolds) had good hearings. Both bills would raise the overall state code for new construction both in cities and in counties. If these bills became law, new construction would be more climate resilient, lower energy and lower water. 

STATE BUDGET MOVES FORWARD: Both the House and the Senate have passed a two-year budget as well as a supplemental budget for 2023 that is well over $300 billion, but they differ in many ways, including how they pay for water needs, how much is included for land acquisition for new parks, how they fund education and property tax relief, and whether they include electric and gas bill relief leftover from Winter Storm Uri. Both the Senate and House have named their “conferees” to hash out the differences between the two legislative bodies. The Senate named Sens. Huffman, Nichols, Kolkhorst, Creighton and Schwertner. The House named Reps. Bonnen (chair), Gonzalez of El Paso, Jetton, VanDeaver, and Walle. For the agencies that deal with natural resources, the key members will be Walle and Nichols.  

Okay, now for some not so great news.

SUPER PRE-EMPTION: The House passed an “incredi-terrible” bill (HB 2127) this week that would eviscerate local democracies’ ability to adopt ordinances on a wide range of public issues, from water breaks for construction workers to payday loan protections to water conservation and cave protection measures (read Texas Tribune's story here). Shockingly, several Democrats - most of whom are in positions of power -  voted for it as well. Many of them are from South Texas as the Republican Party seeks to broaden its influence there. It’s now in the Senate, so the chances it will pass the legislature are very good. Look out for an action alert from us next week with more info.

BIG FOSSIL FUEL SUBSIDIES: HB 5 is a wonky bill, but the gist of it is that it would reconstitute a school property tax subsidy for wealthy industries (Chapter 313) that would also exclude renewable energy projects. It was heard in the House Ways & Means Committee last  week and has several co-authors. Every major business association is for it. Our take? Pitting school districts against each other to give away funding for schools for companies that would likely come to Texas anyway is bad public policyWe are against it fundamentally but even more so if it only exists to benefit large polluting industries. (read more at Oil and Gas Watch here and check out our new factsheet here).