By Cyrus Reed, Alex Ortiz, and Matt Johnson
We are in the thick of it. With roughly only 55 days left in the legislative session, the action is fast and furious. A month and a half left for bills to get voted on move through one chamber and on the other.
- Budget debate in the House
- TCEQ Sunset bill moves on
- Bad (and less bad) energy bills
- What about the good energy bills?
- Cities are still under attack
- Huge water finance bill moves forward
- Funding for economically distressed areas heard in committee
- Texas Land and Water Conservation Fund
On Thursday, the House of Representatives took up 389 proposed amendments on HB 1, the the House version of the budget for fiscal years 2024 and 2025, and some 17 amendments on SB 30, the supplemental appropriations bill. The amendments can be divided into three categories:
- Policy statements by members of both parties that probably have no chance of passing but are meant to point out issues, be it lack of teacher raises, voting rights access, abortion issues, so-called ESG (environmental, social, and governance) corporate policies, the attorney general’s legal problems, too much border security, not enough border security, etc. you get the idea;
- Earmarking funds for particular projects, be it a flood mitigation project or local park program, in a member’s local district;
- Proposals meant to shift money from one agency program to another.
The majority of them were either withdrawn or moved to “Article XI” - a portion of the budget which is simply a list of potential changes that have not officially been adopted but could still be part of the negotiation process over the final budget (It is very rare for anything sent to Article XI to ever see the light of day). Despite the many, many hours of debate on the House floor, in the end, only a handful of amendments were adopted.
The House overwhelmingly approved both HB 1 and SB 30 late Thursday night. At over $300 billion, the two-year budget was improved during debate with important amounts of money added to education, retirees, and special education, thanks to some great work by Reps. Gina Hinojosa, Trey Martinez Fisher, and Plesa among others. Also, the House officially rejected using any money for “school choice,” a priority of both Gov. Abbott and the Lt. Gov. Patrick. In that case, all Democrats and many rural Republicans joined forces to favor public education over special private school interests.
One of the budget items supported by the Sierra Club in the Senate version of SB 30 ($3.4 billion to help Texans reduce their utility bills from Winter Storm Uri) was not included in the House budget, but we expect that to be part of the eventual negotiations.
With the House approving a budget, we expect the Senate to take up HB 1 as soon as next week in committee, replace it with their own version, and send it to the Senate floor. Expect negotiations over the budget to begin in late April and early May since it is the only bill that must pass.
This week the Senate Committee on Natural Resources passed a modestly improved TCEQ Sunset bill - SB 1397 by Sen. Schwertner. The bill is nearly identical to the bill considered in the House (HB 1505 by Rep. Holland), but three changes were made in committee, two good and one bad.
First, largely because of advocacy by community and environmental organizations, the Senate agreed to add language that for certain kinds of consolidated permits, public comments could be made and contested case hearings could be requested up to 36 hours after the public meeting, a key recommendation of the Sierra Club and many other organizations.
Second, thanks to great work by Sen. Borris Miles, language was added to the bill to direct the TCEQ to conduct community outreach in communities overburdened by pollution that are subject to many permits, meaning the TCEQ will take a more proactive approach to informing and working with communities. While far short of the environmental justice office many were seeking, this is still a major improvement to the bill. Sierra Club, Public Citizen, and organizations like CEER were actively supporting the Miles amendment with members of the committee.
Finally, and disappointingly, one of our key asks was watered down - increasing the maximum fines that can be assessed to environmental law breakers. While the bill still raises the maximum fine from $25,000 to $40,000, it will only apply where a major violation occurred that resulted in actual environmental or public health damages and only if the violator was a repeat offender. The change makes the initial recommendation far weaker on environmental enforcement, though it is still an improvement over current law. The Sierra Club will be working to improve this aspect as the bill moves to the Senate floor.
This was the week for the Lt. Governor’s “Repowering Texas” package of electricity bills sold as THE way to ensure we never suffer outages from another Winter Storm Uri. To no one’s surprise, all nine bills introduced passed the Senate this week. Some improvements were made, but Sierra Club is fundamentally opposed to three bills:
- SB 6, the “Berkshire Hathaway” vendor bill that would require the buildout of 10,000 MW of gas plants as a back-up to the grid
- SB 2015, which would dictate that, going forward, half of new power sources must be “dispatchable”
- and SB 1287, which would allocate transmission costs more to renewable energy than fossil fuel generation.
We are also concerned with two other bills - SB 7 and SB 2012 - though we worked with three Senate offices - Sens. Johnson, Menendez, and Zaffirini - to amend and improve the bills. While most Democrats did vote against the three worst bills,, SB 7 and SB 2012 passed unanimously as a result of the improving amendments. Still, the Sierra Club will work to hopefully defeat the three bad bills in the House, and improve the others. We do support three other bills passed by the Senate (SB 2010, SB 2011 and SB 2013), which deal with market power abuse and reporting requirements.
For the most part, the package of bills we support on people-centered solutions to high bills and high demand are still awaiting hearings as the clock ticks.
However, a couple of positive developments occurred this week. First, we helped move an important bill to allow distributed energy resources (like small-scale solar) to participate in energy markets. SB 1699 by Sen. Johnson passed out of committee this week. We also had an utterly fantastic hearing on one of our priority bills - HB 4811 - by Rep. Anchia, which would create the Texas Energy Efficiency Council to better coordinate state and federal funding in the House Committee on State Affairs. There was great testimony not only from the Sierra Club but also from Public Citizen, SPEER, EDF, the US Green Building Council, and many others. Interestingly, even our traditional nemesis - the Association of Electric Companies of Texas - even liked the bills and signed up in support!
Finally, we have been told that some additional good clean energy bills will get a hearing late next week, including SB 258 by Sen. Eckhardt. We expect a hearing on Thursday in the State Committee on Business and Commerce. HB 2502 by Rep. Reynolds, which would create a revolving loan program for energy efficiency, will also have a hearing next week.
We wish we could report that cities are being respected and local democracy in Texas is alive and well, but we would be lying.
First, the Senate passed SB 1017 by Sen. Birdwell, which is aimed at preventing cities from restricting or banning certain kinds of engines or fuel sources (meaning things like gas-powered landscaping equipment). The bill was really aimed at the CIty of Dallas for daring to consider some restrictions and potentially a ban (by 2030) on certain types of leaf blowers. To his credit, Sen. Birdwell significantly softened the bill due to concerns raised by the Sierra Club and the CIty of Dallas, and the bill that passed is not as draconian as the original, but it is still a significant reduction in local control over pollution engines and fuel sources. We expect the bill to move quickly in the House, and is supported by many business interests. Again, while we don’t like the bill, in the present political context, sometimes the only thing we can do is to make bad bills less bad.
Far, far worse than Sen. Birdwell’s very targeted approach, however, is the behemoth super preemption bill by Sen. Creighton, SB 814, which had a hearing in Business and Commerce this week. The bill is the companion to HB 2127 by Rep. Burrows, which had a hearing a few weeks back in the House Committee on State Affairs. In fact, earlier this week the bill passed out of Committee along party lines, with Republicans supporting it and Democrats opposing it. The bill is a fundamental attack on cities and their ability to regulate anything. It would reverse 100 years of home rule law, and essentially say in these eight areas of law (including the natural resource and agricultural codes) cities can’t do anything unless the legislature specifically authorizes them to do something. It particularly impacts labor and occupations (eg., water breaks for construction workers or minimum wage or building better programs) and programs designed to protect low-income Texans (eg., payday lending protections) but it is also damaging to environmental protections (eg., caves or restrictions on trucks from oil and gas fields or water conservation requirements). Unfortunately, despite widespread opposition from churches, non-profits, unions, local government and most citizens, some version of these bills are likely to pass, bolstered by business, oil and gas, construction, and other trade groups. Apparently, eviscerating local control and local democracy is good for business. The Sierra Club will continue to participate in the coalition opposing these bad bills.
SB 28 and SJR 75, by Sen. Charles Perry (who also happens to be Chair of the Senate Water, Agriculture, and Rural Affairs Committee) were unanimously voted out of the Senate. The bill and constitutional amendment create a constitutionally dedicated fund, the “Texas Water Fund” which would be a large umbrella fund housed at the Texas Water Development Board. This fund would enable TWDB to exercise substantially more discretion with state funds. While this is generally a good idea in terms of allowing TWDB to invest in maintenance of our water infrastructure and mitigating water loss (Texas loses 572,000 acre-feet of water per year, as our friends at the Texas Living Waters Project have reported), it also creates a new fund for “new water supply” and permits this discretion to be channeled to that fund and used for risky, unproven, or under-regulated projects like marine desalination, produced water treatment, and importing water from other states. Many of these projects pose serious risks to human and ecosystem health without additional study and regulation.
The TWDB’s Economically Distressed Areas Program (EDAP) provides important water and wastewater infrastructure to Texas’s most vulnerable communities. HB 3522 and HB 3523 by Rep. Mary González, were both heard in House Natural Resources this week. These bills would expand the amount of total funds available to vulnerable communities, as well as expanding how much of the funds that the TWDB can use for grants rather than loans. These improvements to EDAP will ultimately result in more funding for parts of the state that are in the greatest need, and ensure that they’re able to issue a higher ratio of grants to loans, meaning that even more communities will not have to worry about the large financial burden of repaying a loan for the use of this program.
HB 3165 and HJR 138 by Rep. Justin Holland, creating the Texas Land and Water Conservation Fund, were also heard this week in House Natural Resources. The Sierra Club is just one of many organizations that supports this integral legislative effort to conserve lands and water for wildlife and future Texans. The bill and resolution have overwhelming support, and are likely to be voted out of committee next week and then head to the House floor. Texas is only one of 11 states that doesn’t have a dedicated fund for land and water conservation — and with an ever-growing population and increased development, the legislature needs to bring our state up to standard with the rest of the country.
Finally, as a reminder, we have three active action alerts. Please take a minute to email your legislators and let them know you support these critical priorities!
- Stop SB 6: Say Yes to Lower Bills, No to Corporate Giveaways
- More Turtles, Not Nurdles! Reduce primary plastic pollution in our coastal ecosystems!
- Support legislation that fixes the Texas grid and lowers bills for Texas families!
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