Last Week in the Legislature
By Kenneth Besserman
Director of Government Affairs and Special Counsel
March 12, 2021 | Issue No. 8
The Session Finally Begins
Week 9 of the Texas Legislature has been focused once again on the aftermath of the winter storm and power grid failures of late February. There continue to be repercussions and legislative fallout about the exorbitant energy bills, the massive overbilling by ERCOT (anywhere from $3 to 16 billion), and the continued resignations of ERCOT and Public Utility Commission members.
First, Governor Greg Abbott made the ERCOT billing error a priority item for the legislature to consider. His order directed the legislature to correct any inaccurate excessive energy charges and billing errors. With the legislature at the 60-day period, the order will not speed up any legislative consideration of the matter, but the order does put the issue at the front and center of the session and makes the issue a priority of the governor.
Second, Speaker Dade Phelan unveiled the House’s priorities when it comes to resolving the power grid failures and the steps that the House wants to take moving forward. Those proposed reforms include restructuring ERCOT, ratepayers’ consumer rights, better coordination between agencies and weatherization of the power grid. Hearings on these bills will occur in the coming weeks.
Lastly on the energy grid front, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick attended and questioned the PUC chairman at a hearing this week. It is a highly unusual step for a lieutenant governor to question witnesses in a Senate committee hearing. The committee questioning and discussion centered around the exorbitant billing and overcharges that ERCOT imposed on grid operators. The issue focused on what authority the PUC or ERCOT had to address the overbilling and whether they planned to do so. The governor’s insistence that the overbilling be addressed by the legislature will continue to make this a heated issue throughout the session.
In the House, committee hearings began in earnest in Week 9. If you have been able to see the committee hearings on the Internet or in person, you have seen how the House is handling the hearings during the pandemic. Hearings are held in larger rooms, lots of plexiglass, virtual testimony is available for invited witnesses, and masks are still required for people attending or testifying in person.
The Senate has been slow to start committee hearings and as of March 11, no bills have passed out of any committee, meaning that the full Senate has no bills to consider on the floor. This is highly unusual since the Senate is typically the chamber that starts off very fast and passes a large number of bills early on, putting pressure on the House to start their committee hearings. As we have talked about all session, things will be and are different this session.
On the TXCPA legislative front, things are beginning to pick up as well. House Bill 1195, which will remove PPP loans forgiven from the Texas franchise tax revenue calculation, is set for a hearing on Monday, March 15 in House Ways & Means. Check this link to watch the hearing if you have an opportunity.
Senator Kelly Hancock has introduced legislation, Senate Bill 6, which will address liability issues that may arise relating to actions or inactions taken by businesses, first responders, non-profits, hospitals, and schools during the pandemic. In order to overcome the liability protection, a lawsuit will have to demonstrate some flagrant, malicious, willful or wanton disregard for standards, guidelines or protocols. In addition, an expert report will need to be submitted showing the scientific basis of the plaintiff’s harm. More information on this legislation can be found here.
TXCPA continues to hear positive messages about SB 297, the fingerprinting extension deadline. Senator Charles Perry and his office are working to have the bill heard in the Senate Natural Resources & Economic Development Committee very soon. Stay tuned here and watch for legislative alerts on this bill and other important legislation.
Finally, Friday, March 12 is the 60th day of the session and marks the end of bill filing. It also marks the traditional “real start” of the legislative session. Things will be in high gear from now until the end of May (and the summer and fall since special sessions are highly anticipated). TXCPA Government Relations staff will be working diligently over the next few days to review the multitude of bills filed at the deadline to see what bills are important to the Society and which bills we need to support or oppose.
Only 79 days to go.