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May 12th, 2021:

House passes its bill to limit Governor’s emergency powers

Not sure if this is going to make it through the Senate.

The Texas House on Monday gave preliminary approval to a sweeping bill that would reform the governor’s emergency powers during a pandemic and involve the Legislature during such instances.

House members voted 92-45 for House Bill 3, which will need another vote in the lower chamber before it heads over to the Senate for consideration.

“We must now take what we have learned in dealing with the pandemic and set a different framework for future pandemics,” state Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican and author of the proposal, told House members as he laid out the legislation. “As a baseline, you will not government your way out of it.”

HB 3 as advanced Monday would give lawmakers more oversight of the governor’s emergency powers during a pandemic and specifically carves out future pandemics from how the state responds to other disasters, such as hurricanes. One amendment added Monday, for example, would require the Legislature to convene for a special session if a disaster declaration lasts longer than 120 days.

The wide-ranging legislation would affirm the governor’s ability to suspend state laws during a pandemic and allow for overriding local orders issued by county judges or mayors if they’re inconsistent with state orders.

Members drastically changed the legislation Monday with a number of amendments during the floor debate, including one that would create the Texas Epidemic Public Health Institute at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. That entity would make recommendations to a 12-member legislative oversight committee that also would be created if HB 3 became law. The committee, which would consist of the lieutenant governor and speaker — who would serve as joint chairs — and a number of committee chairs from both chambers, could in certain cases terminate pandemic disaster declarations, orders or other rules issued by the governor or local governments. It would only be able to act though when the Legislature is not convened for a regular or special session.

Ahead of Monday’s debate, the legislation was tweaked by Burrows to allow the Legislature to intervene on certain executive orders or proclamations issued by the governor. The governor would need permission from the Legislature to extend beyond 30 days an order or proclamation related to requiring face masks, limiting certain medical procedures or closing or capping business operating capacity. If the Legislature wasn’t already in session, the governor would be required to convene a special legislative session for lawmakers to consider modifying or terminating that order. If the Legislature was already in session, the governor would still need to ask state lawmakers for input to modify or terminate an order.

See here, here, and here for some background. You know how I feel about this – I generally agree with giving the Legislature a broader say in these matters, but I recognize that there can be logistical challenges with that, not to mention concern about speed of response. I also have serious concerns with the philosophy embedded in this bill – to say “you’re not going to government your way out” of a pandemic is, to put it mildly, wildly misinformed. I also have great concerns about the neutering of local officials, which the Chron story goes into.

The bill prohibits local governments from closing businesses or limiting their maximum occupancy, plus any local government deemed by the governor to have required a business to close would be prohibited from levying certain tax increases.

The bill also includes protections for most businesses from civil suits related to the pandemic.

Some of the more recent additions to the bill have helped it win the favor of conservative legislators who were skeptical, such as Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, who commended the bill’s author, Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, for addressing his concerns.

Texas House Democratic Party Chair Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, said the deal breaker for many members of his party came down to limits on local control.

“There were some positive things in the bill, but a lot of us were not comfortable with restrictions on local officials,” Turner said. “Local officials led our state through the pandemic and the Legislature should not limit their ability to do so in the future.”

I will admit to mixed feelings on this as well. We saw last year that the response to the pandemic varied greatly between urban counties and their neighbors. Harris County was serious about masking and social distancing and limiting gatherings, which meant putting more restrictions on businesses, while Montgomery County was the exact opposite. Which is all well and good until you remember that viruses don’t respect borders, and Montgomery’s laxness had a negative effect on Harris. That’s the argument for limiting what local officials can do, which sounds great until those limits are on actions you approve of. This bill ratchets that debate in the Republican direction, which at least clarifies the ambivalence I feel. The Senate bill is more limited in its approach. I have no idea which bill will win out. There’s only so much time left for a compromise. Reform Austin has more.

Houston gets to have a boring budget

Thanks, President Biden and all you voters in Georgia!

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to use an influx of federal cash to give firefighters a “raise the city can afford,” expand the Houston Police Department and replace lost revenue from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the mayor’s $5.1 billion annual spending plan.

Turner’s budget proposal relies on roughly $304 million in federal relief money that was set to be deposited into the city’s coffers this week. The administration would use $188 million of that money to close most of the city’s projected $201 million deficit for the upcoming fiscal year, while fully replenishing the $20 million rainy day fund ahead of hurricane season.

“Without this flexibility, the city would be facing catastrophic cuts across all services,” Turner said, a nod to the city’s estimated $178 million in lost revenue during the pandemic, mostly driven by sales tax.

The proposed spending plan largely would leave the city’s $214 million in reserves, which officials have relied on in recent years to help balance the annual budget, untouched. Turner also did not account for $112 million of the city’s stimulus funds in his initial spending plan, leaving the door open for other initiatives that he declined to detail Tuesday.

A portion of the extra federal aid likely will cover the firefighter raises, which Turner did not include in the budget as proposed Tuesday. The mayor declined to reveal the size of the firefighter pay increase, saying only that he plans to implement raises over three years, starting July 1, when the 2022 fiscal year begins.

[…]

Without the firefighter raises, Turner’s spending plan represents a 4.7 percent increase from last year’s budget. The tax- and fee-supported general fund, which pays for core city services, would total $2.58 billion next year, up 3.9 percent. The largest increase would come from the police department, which would see its budget rise to $984 million, about $33 million more than city officials expect to spend this year.

The additional police spending would fund six cadet classes instead of the usual five, and cover a 2 percent raise for officers. The city’s contract with police officers has expired and the two sides have not agreed on a new one, but an evergreen clause in that deal secured the raise. The raise accounts for $11.7 million of the added funds.

The Houston Fire Department also would see a modest budget increase, with funding for four cadet classes. The initial $515 million HFD budget includes funding for 3,648 classified firefighters, according to city finance officials, about 76 fewer than the current budget.

For now, the two public safety departments account for roughly a quarter of the mayor’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year and half the general fund costs.

Controller Chris Brown said the federal stimulus money bailed the city out of a truly dire scenario — Houston’s worst-ever deficit, which could have resulted in as many as 2,500 layoffs.

“I’d breath a sigh of relief and look at the fact that the city really dodged a bullet this budget cycle,” Brown said, adding that his biggest concern is the city’s continuing structural imbalance. Its recurring expenditures outweigh revenues, meaning the city usually has to employ stop-gap measures such as land sales and deferrals to balance its books.

See here and here for the background. It’s hard to remember now, but a year ago things were looking really bad. The CARES Act helped, but the American Rescue Plan provided more money with fewer strings attached. It also provided money for the next fiscal year, by which time hopefully the city’s sales tax revenue will have bounced back. Not having this money would have made the next budget so much worse than it was in 2010. We still have challenges ahead, but at least the hole didn’t get exponentially bigger.

(As for the increase to the police budget, well, I didn’t expect anything different. Here’s hoping the Lege fails to carry that ball across the goal line.

The Big Freeze didn’t just screw Texas

I had no idea.

Texas’ deep freeze didn’t just disrupt natural gas supplies throughout Lone Star country—its effects rippled across the country, extending as far north as Minnesota. There, gas utilities had to pay $800 million more than they anticipated during the event, and Minnesota regulators are furious.

“The ineptness and disregard for common-sense utility regulation in Texas makes my blood boil and keeps me up at night,” Katie Sieben, chairwoman of the Minnesota Public Utility Commission, told The Washington Post. “It is maddening and outrageous and completely inexcusable that Texas’s lack of sound utility regulation is having this impact on the rest of the country.”

The gas and electric markets in Texas are lightly regulated and highly competitive, which has pushed companies to deliver energy at the lowest possible cost. But it also means that many companies were ill-prepared when the mercury dropped. To save money, they had skimped on winterizing their equipment. As a result, gas lines across the state—which has about 23 percent of the country’s reserves—quite literally froze. The spot price of natural gas soared to 70-times what it would normally be in Minnesota, and gas utilities paid a hefty premium when they used the daily market to match demand.

In a twist, the biggest gas utility in Minnesota is CenterPoint Energy, a Houston-based company that also supplies a large swath of Southeastern Texas. The company said it spent an additional $500 million on gas that week in February, and it has asked Minnesota’s utility commission for permission to add a surcharge to customers’ bills. The surcharge not only seeks to recoup the additional money CenterPoint spent on natural gas, it also includes 8.75 percent interest. The company expects that each customer would shoulder a burden of $300 to $400.

Crazy, huh? I heard about this from friends on a recent Zoom call. CenterPoint is not only pushing to bill their Minnesota customers more to make up for the price differential, they’re asking to begin doing that in May instead of in September when price adjustments are normally made. They’re doing this because they say they’re in a cash bind, while at the same time their CEO is assuring investors that their cash position is just fine. They sure know how to make friends, don’t they?

The WaPo story has more details. This bit at the end caught my interest:

The state’s attorney general, Keith Ellison, a former Democratic member of Congress, has filed a strongly critical response to CenterPoint’s plan.

It notes that over the two-year payout schedule, the interest charged to customers would amount to $60 million, “at a time when many of them are already behind on their bills.”

CenterPoint argues that the interest charge reflects its own capital borrowing costs and that it is an appropriate item to add to its bills.

“The company has already had to pay most of the natural gas costs from February, but these costs will only be recovered over an extended period of time,” [CenterPoint spokesperson Ross] Corson wrote. “Until recovered, CenterPoint Energy must finance these costs through a combination of debt and equity. Given the unprecedented magnitude of this financial commitment, it is appropriate to include finance charges.”

Annie Levenson-Falk, executive director of a nonprofit called the Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota, asked in an interview why CenterPoint didn’t appeal for voluntary reductions in gas use when it saw prices spike.

She said the utilities should demonstrate why they had to rely so heavily on the spot market. But, she added, “there’s no getting around it — these are big costs that someone is going to have to incur.”

Natural gas, though, is an “essential good,” she said, adding that ordinary Minnesotans, collateral damage in the Texas disaster, are blameless.

“You know, somebody made a lot of money off people needing to heat their homes,” she said. “And that’s not right.”

There’s talk that Minnesota AG Ellison may file a lawsuit against CenterPoint over this. I can already hear the caterwauling from certain local politicians if that happens.

On a side note:

An updated analysis of February’s Texas power crisis by experts at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas shows that lost wind power generation was a small component of the huge losses in electric generation that plunged much of the state into darkness during the severe cold weather.

While Texas Republicans were quick to blame renewable energy during the storm — and have continued to target renewable energy for reform during this year’s legislative session — a recently updated report on the causes of generator outages during the week of Feb. 14 show that the most significant cause of the low power supply to the grid came from natural gas plants shutting down or reducing electricity production due to cold weather, equipment failures and natural gas shortages.

In ERCOT’s first preliminary report on the causes of the power crisis, released in early April, the grid operator included a chart that appeared to show power generation losses from wind as just slightly smaller than natural gas generation losses that week. But that analysis used the capacity of the state’s wind turbines to generate electricity, not what wind turbines would have actually generated if not for the outages.

Wind power feeds into the grid depending on weather conditions, and renewable energy sources typically have much higher potential to generate electricity than what is actually produced on a day-to-day basis; sometimes renewable power generates a lot and at other times none or very little. ERCOT uses detailed weather forecasts to estimate how much wind and solar power will be available to the grid.

In the updated analysis included in a Wednesday ERCOT meeting, the grid operator calculated that for the week of Feb. 14, natural gas power losses were several times that of wind generation.

[…]

The analysis also provided a more detailed picture of the reasons for natural gas outages, showing that disruptions in natural gas supply to the plants were a bigger share of the outages than initially estimated. Still, weather-related problems and equipment problems remained the biggest reasons for natural gas plant outages.

Here’s a pretty picture for you:

Sure would be nice if the Legislature spent less time attacking transgender kids and renewable energy, and more time working to make the grid more reliable and less likely to produce another big freeze, wouldn’t it?

The I-45 effect on Metro

There will be a lot of disruption to mass transit as a result of the I-45 project.

Metro’s board on Thursday approved hiring design and engineering firm STV Incorporated for services related to the controversial Interstate 45 project. Though the bulk of the project will widen I-45, it includes a near-total redesign of the downtown freeway system, starting with work along Interstate 69 at Spur 527, putting Wheeler — where Texas Department of Transportation officials plan to bury the freeway below local streets — in the first phases.

The contract with STV, valued at up to $9.6 million for the next five years, allows Metro to consult the company as it plans for transit operations during construction and how what is built will affect its own upcoming projects.

The goal, officials said, is to limit disruptions to bus and rail service and preserve the space Metro will need for future transit lanes and stations, so adding them later does not become a costly and complicated challenge.

“It is absolutely imperative we understand the impacts of the (I-45 rebuild) on the Wheeler site,” said Clint Harbert, vice-president of system and capital planning for Metro. “That includes all of the stakeholder activity around us and the loss of property at the Wheeler site, as well as how is BRT going to go through.”

The transit center, which at times has had safety concerns because of its isolated location practically beneath the freeway between Fannin and Main, is rapidly getting new neighbors and more visibility. The former Sears property in Midtown is the centerpiece of a planned “innovation hub” and redevelopment is occurring on many nearby blocks.

[…]

Though TxDOT has halted development of many segments, the portion along I-69 from Spur 527 to Texas 288 — which includes Wheeler — remains on pace for construction to start next year. Widening I-45 and redoing the downtown system is spread across many distinct but connected projects, and TxDOT had approvals and design ready for the first segments, but has halted development of the others until a lawsuit filed by Harris County and the federal review are settled.

That work could affect Wheeler and the Red Line early on, as burying the freeway through Midtown and rebuilding city streets could mean months of detours and delays for transit in the area.

The Wheeler work and potential to have the Red Line, the most-used transit line in Texas, cut in half by construction is not the only impact Metro is weighing with the I-45 work. In 2017, Metro estimated reconstruction of I-45 could cost transit officials an additional $24 million annually simply in employee time and fuel related to detours.

Wheeler already is a major stop in the Metro system, but its importance is set to increase, based on the agency’s long-range transit plan. Riders will use Wheeler to transfer to and from the Red Line light rail, the spine of the train network, and the longest planned bus rapid transit line serving northeast Houston, Midtown and Westchase.

See here, here, and here for some background. The thought of the Red Line being interrupted for months because of freeway construction blows my mind – the amount of chaos that will cause is enormous. I won’t relitigate the question of if it’s all worth it or not – if nothing else, we can wait and see what the Harris County lawsuit brings. There is the potential here for federal money to pick up some of the cost of the BRT line that is now the Universities Line plus a northeast extension, and that would be sweet. And who knows, maybe some of this construction chaos doesn’t happen, or at least isn’t as bad as we now fear. There’s still hope. Some of this work would be done regardless anyway. Whatever happens, I wish all the best to everyone who’s going to have to deal with it for however long.