House Makes Its First Post-Freeze Moves to Fix the Grid

Who's got the power?

About 50 people gathered outside ERCOT's Austin campus at a protest organized by the Party for Socialism and Liberation on Sunday, Feb. 28 (Photo by John Anderson)

In what he dubbed a "first phase" of the Lege's response to last month's freeze-driven failure of the Texas power grid, House Speaker Dade Phelan used up a bunch of low bill numbers – House Bills 10-14 and 16-17 – on low-hanging fruit harvested by both parties. Measures by House State Affairs Chair Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, would restructure governance of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, improve coordination between ERCOT and energy regulators, and mandate the weatherization of generation and transmission systems. That last item was called for 10 years ago in a highly critical report from this same committee, after the last time the power grid froze. (Bills to make it happen by then-Rep. Sylvester Turner went nowhere, as the Houston mayor has pointed out more than once in recent weeks.) Paddie's bill includes no funding for this expensive endeavor; neither does the parallel bill by Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, to require hardening the natural gas infrastructure that delivers the fuel to generate close to half of Texas' electricity. (Real money to cover this billion-dollar expense would require a constitutional amendment election.) Bills by Democrats, all members of State Affairs, include creating an emergency alert system (like an Amber alert) for disasters including power outages (Richard Pena Raymond, D-Laredo); prohibiting retail providers like Griddy (RIP) from lulling consumers with low, but not fixed, wholesale prices (Ana Hernandez, D-Houston); and, controversially, blocking local measures to prevent or discourage the retail use of natural gas (Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont). More on ERCOT in "Austin at Large" ...

Time For Your Casablanca Jokes!

You'll be shocked, shocked to learn that, as happens every year the Lege faces down a tight budget, proposals to expand legal gambling in Texas (to fund education, of course! And public safety!) have rolled into view. Joint resolutions carried in the House by Rep. John Kuempel, R-Seguin, and in the Senate by Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, would put to Texas voters a plan for a limited number of casinos (currently four) to open in the state's largest metros, as well as expansion of the gaming offerings by the state's three recognized native tribes and a clear-cut authorization of wagering on sports. Consitutional amendments need supermajorities in both chambers to even get on the ballot this November, which will require expensive outside lobbying and organizing muscle to tip over Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and other intermittent Baptists whose Christian Life Commission has blocked gambling for many decades. That money and muscle is being ante'd up by a new Sports Betting Alliance uniting Texas pro teams and owners (notably Mark Cuban) with FanDuel and Draft Kings, along with Las Vegas Sands, the casino empire of late GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson. In addition to Kuempel and Alvarado's omnibus measures, more than a dozen stand-alone bills to expand the gambling footprint have been filed by members of both parties (but mostly Democrats). ...

Sorry, You Can't Camp Anywhere

Falling in line with Gov. Greg Abbott's crusade against Austin's decriminalization of homelessness, bills filed by Sens. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway; Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston; and Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, and by Rep. Giovanni Capri­glione, R-Southlake, would make it a Class C misdemeanor to camp in a public place anywhere in the state without express consent. Even on municipal property, the permission of local authorities (e.g., the Austin City Council) is not sufficient – lifting a camping ban, as Austin has, would require state approval. Nor can local authorities – including elected district and county attorneys – discourage police or prosecutors from enforcing camping bans. Violations of these provisions would invite not only intervention by the Office of the Attorney General but also the loss of state grant funding, a particular pain point for local law enforcement, including in smaller communities that may not think they have a camping problem that needs solving. Of course, those communities that want to impose even more onerous restrictions on their unsheltered poor are free to do so. ...

Fighting For (and Against) The Right to Protest

As spotted last week by indie journalist Jack Craver, bills filed by Rep. John Cyrier, R-Lock­hart, and Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, could untangle the state law provisions that stymied Austin's Land Development Code revision process last year. Currently, property owners in Texas have the right to protest zoning changes not only to their own properties, but to any within 200 feet; if they are joined by enough neighbors (those who own 20% of the nearby property), they can require a supermajority vote of a city council to approve the zoning change. In Austin, that's nine votes, as opposed to the 7-4 votes that approved the revised LDC on its first two readings before District Judge Jan Soifer ruled that nothing in state law exempted a citywide code rewrite from these protest provisions. The identical bills by Cyrier and Johnson would explicitly change that, specifying that protest rights apply to changes proposed for an individual or limited set of contiguous properties (i.e., a single zoning case), and not to comprehensive code rewrites that affect all property owners. Since Soifer's ruling, which voided the prior Council votes, two of the seven backers of LDC revision have been replaced by less gung-ho members, so passage of the bills would not itself get the process unstuck.

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87th Texas Legislature, Dade Phelan, House Bill 10, House Bill 11, House Bill 12, House Bill 13, House Bill 14, House Bill 15, House Bill 16, House Bill 17, Texas House of Representatives, Texas Senate, Texas Legislature, House State Affairs, Chris Paddie, Electric Reliability Council of Texas, Sylvester Turner, Craig Goldman, Richard Pena Raymond, Joe Deshotel

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