The Austin Chronicle

Lege Ticker: Someone Has to Pay the Post-Storm Electric Bill

The price is right?

By Mike Clark-Madison, Austin Sanders, Beth Sullivan, and Mary Tuma, March 19, 2021, News

Though spring has sprung throughout Texas, Winter Storm Uri continues to do damage at the Capitol. On Tuesday, Public Utility Commission Chairman (and sole remaining member) Arthur D'Andrea was fired by Gov. Greg Abbott, after Texas Monthly reported on a March 9 call where D'Andrea signaled to investors he would not allow "repricing" of the huge charges levied by power generators during the storm. Those $9,000 per megawatt-hour bills for electricity, the maximum price allowed by the PUC in the state's competitive power market managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, added up to as much as $45 billion during the crisis, far more than the retail utilities who purchased that power can afford. But many generators are also on the hook for record-breaking natural gas prices during the freeze, for which there is no repricing fix to be had. In short, everyone is kinda screwed (except for Austin Energy, which is nice, for a change) and Texans will be paying for this mess for a long, long time.

On the retail side, both for-profiteers like the unfortunate Griddy (which lured customers with "low" wholesale prices) and public providers like Brazos Electric Co-op, the state's largest, have already declared bankruptcy; Brazos and CPS Energy (owned by the city of San Antonio) have filed the first suits against ERCOT. The PUC's "independent market monitor," Carrie Bivens of Potomac Economics (an ERCOT executive until 2020), identified $16 billion in "billing errors" caused by ERCOT leaving the max price in place too long, of which she said $4.2 billion could be recovered through repricing. D'Andrea and ousted ERCOT CEO Bill Magness disagree, saying the business decision was essential to keep generators (that is, the ones paying for natural gas) from going offline again and knocking out the entire grid.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and his Texas Senate latched on to the "billing error" framing, rushing through a bill to allow/force the PUC to reprice the power trades, which House Speaker Dade Phelan pronounced DOA in his chamber. Abbott had also lined up with D'Andrea, and mixed it up with Patrick, until the TM revelation of the PUC chair's apparent collusion with Wall Street sharks. D'Andrea, who previously worked with Abbott for more than a decade (beginning at the Attorney General's Office), had told the Lege much the same thing during his days of testimony, and on the investor call (closed to the press and public) he said that, as the last PUC-er standing, he had "the safest job in Texas." Or not ... – Mike Clark-Madison

Policing the Police

While the George Floyd Act (by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston) is this session's centerpiece legislation for criminal justice reform, the Mike Ramos Act includes other important changes to Texas policing, such as mandating de-escalation training for law enforcement agencies across the state, limiting chiefs' ability to withhold body-cam footage, and increasing the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement's authority to suspend or revoke an officer's license for certain offenses. (TCOLE is up for Sunset review this session; the Sunset Advisory Commission staff has proposed a two-year extension while a blue-ribbon panel tries to fix the troubled agency.)

Although the legislation bears the name of an Austin man killed by police (read more), the bills by Sens. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin; Royce West, D-Dallas; and Borris Miles, D-Houston; and Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, wouldn't have much impact on local policing, since the Austin Police Depart­ment already has de-escalation and body-cam footage release policies in place. Currently, officers involved in critical incidents can review the footage before writing their sworn statements; cops say this ensures accuracy, while activists say it gives officers a chance to devise a cover story. The Mike Ramos Act would eliminate the practice. – Austin Sanders

Bathroom Bill 2.0?

The 87th Lege features the return of GOP lawmakers' obsession with policing transgender Texan youth. This time, instead of the potty police, we have Senate Bill 29 (by Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock), which forces K-12 student-athletes to join the teams corresponding with their assigned gender at birth. Like the bathroom bill panic of 2017, this right-wing crusade, which is playing out in statehouses across the country, is an attack on trans girls, pitched as a defense of Title IX protections for women and girls in sports. So far, Idaho is the only state to have passed such a bill (now tied up in court), though Texas is one of 19 states where anti-LGBTQIA forces have taken up the cause, one of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's priority measures. The companion House Bill 1458 (by Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring) requires K-12 and college athletes to participate in sports based on "biological sex," which it doesn't define; the prospect of any child's gender being questioned and scrutinized is a concern for queer and trans rights advocates. The measures are among more than 30 anti-LGBTQIA bills filed this session, nearly twice as many as in 2019. – Beth Sullivan

There's Always Time to (Not) Choose

Also on Patrick's list of must-do items this session are Senate Bills 8 and 9, two of the seven anti-abortion bills that sailed through the Senate State Affairs Committee on March 16, following a marathon hearing the prior day. The predictable 7-2 votes featured anti-choice Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, siding with the panel's GOP majority. SB 9 (by Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney) is this session's "trigger bill" to completely outlaw abortion if/when the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade and its successors. In the meantime, SB 8 by State Affairs Committee Chairman Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola – the "heartbeat bill" – would bar abortion after fetal or embryonic cardiac activity is detected, which can happen as early as six weeks, before most women know they're pregnant. (Rep. Shelby Slawson, R-Stephenville, filed the House version, HB 1515.) "Ten other states have passed heartbeat bills; we have to admit Texas is behind," said Hughes. When Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Burleson, asked why the bill had no exceptions for rape or incest, Hughes answered that a "little unborn child shouldn't be punished for an act done to the mother."

Also: SB 650 by Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, which would prevent cities from following Austin's lead and funding abortion support – travel, child care, lodging, and other needs of women facing Texas' ever­-higher barriers to abortion care. (Campbell is upset that Austin found a "loophole" to her 2019 bill, SB 22, that bars any "taxpayer resource transaction" with an "abortion provider or affiliate," i.e., Planned Parenthood.) SB 1173 by Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, would eliminate the fetal abnormalities exception to the state's current 20-week abortion ban; Lucio's SB 394 would restrict medication abortion, including banning mail shipments of abortion drugs to patients; and Paxton's SB 802 requires that women be offered counseling from nonmedical, faith-based crisis pregnancy centers in the Alternatives to Abortion program before receiving actual abortion care. That bill would also create a statewide database of women seeking abortions, which drew pushback from Powell over the potential breach of sensitive patient data. To cap the seven-pack, SB 1647 by Sen. Charles Per­ry, R-Lubbock, is an omnibus bill that tightens existing abortion restrictions and combines Hughes' and Hancock's measures with a straight-up ban to take effect no later than 2025 – legislation heavily supported by the state's loudest anti-abortion lobby group, Texas Right to Life. "We have a chessboard set in front of us and we want to win," said TRL's John Seago. The bills now await action by the full Senate. – Mary Tuma

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