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May 21st, 2021:

The 2022 primary target list

We’re likely to see a significant number of primary challenges in 2022, in all districted offices. That’s partly because 2022 is a post-redistricting year, and with boundaries being shuffled there are always new opportunities for people who find themselves in newly-redrawn districts, partly because party activists have less patience with members who they believe aren’t working in their interests, and partly because some members of the Lege make themselves a target by their actions in the session. To that latter group, let us welcome Rep. Leo Pacheco of San Antonio.

Rep. Leo Pacheco

The Bexar County Democratic Party has censured State Rep. Leo Pacheco, who once served as its chairman, for voting to approve a controversial bill nixing the requirement for Texans to obtain permits to carry handguns.

Pacheco was one of just seven Democrats in the Texas House to vote in favor of the GOP-backed legislation, which is likely to be signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott. Democrats largely opposed the measure, as did gun control groups and some members of law enforcement.

A letter of censure posted Wednesday by the Bexar Democrats points out that the party’s state platform calls for preserving gun rights while “implementing prudent safeguards” to avoid firearm deaths. The platform also calls for prohibiting “open carry of all firearms and repealing ‘campus carry’ policies.”

In an emailed statement, Pacheco’s office declined comment on the letter.

“The representative is waiting until after the end of session to issue any response because his priority is focusing on passing substantive legislation,” the statement said.

Ironically, Rep. Pacheco had previously served as the Bexar County Democratic Party Chair. He was elected in 2018 following the retirement of Rep. Joe Farias. I don’t know a whole lot about his legislative career to this point, which is another way of saying he hadn’t rocked the boat before now. There’s always been a diversity of opinion within the state Democratic Party, more so when there were more Anglo members in rural areas (i.e., prior to 2010, when they were all wiped out in the Republican wave), though the party is more cohesive on a number of issues now. One of those issues is gun control, especially for things like background checks and restrictions on automatic weapons. As we’ve discussed before, public polling data suggests that voters as a whole do not approve of permitless carry, and Democrats really really don’t approve of it. This is what happens when you get out of step with the people you represent.

I will note for the record that while some Democratic reps may have been considering the current political trends when casting their vote on permitless carry, Rep. Pacheco doesn’t really have the same concern. His district voted 55.1 to 40.0 for Hillary Clinton, and 56.2 to 42.4 for Joe Biden. Clinton carried HD118 by 7,233 votes, Biden by 8,380. No shift here.

That doesn’t mean you should start drafting Rep. Pacheco’s political obituary. It doesn’t even guarantee that he’ll face a strong challenger in May or whenever we do get to have our primaries. It does mean he’s on notice, and he’ll either have to do something to make up for this or fight his way through it. We’ll see how it goes for him.

By the way, of the seven Dems who voted for the House permitless carry bill, five were from South Texas/Rio Grande valley districts, which are more rural and shifted towards Trump in 2020, and probably aren’t as out of step on this as Pacheco. The seventh Dem was none other than Harold Dutton, who is on quite a streak here. When the time comes to support a challenger to Dutton, remember that throwing trans kids under the bus isn’t the only reason you have to be mad at him.

Might permitless carry actually fail?

I don’t want to allow myself to hope, but there are some sticking points, and apparently some hard lines being drawn.

Both the Texas House and Senate have agreed in large part to the concept of so-called “constitutional carry” legislation to allow most Texans to carry a handgun without a permit.

But there has been a split in the two chambers over amendments added into the bill by the Senate to ease opposition from law enforcement groups and win more support from lawmakers.

“We are so close to getting this done,” said Andi Turner, legislative director for the Texas State Rifle Association.

While the differences have yet to be settled, Turner said his group is “fully behind” the legislation and is encouraging its members to talk to lawmakers to get the bill to the finish line.

None of the changes has diminished the fierce opposition to House Bill 1927 from most Democrats and gun control advocacy groups who have been largely powerless in stopping the bill so far. Many in law enforcement also continue to oppose the bill.

“The Texas Police Chiefs Association remains strongly opposed to the unlicensed carry of handguns,” a letter from the group to lawmakers stated.

But which of the Senate amendments are causing the most trouble in GOP circles is largely a mystery given the debate over it in conference committee is happening in closed-door sessions away from public view.

See here and here for some background. As a reminder, law enforcement really doesn’t like permitless carry, though at least one law enforcement group gave a blessing to the Senate version with the amendments that this story details. The Republicans have positioned themselves as all in on backing the blue, which makes their (mostly in the House) intransigence on these law enforcement-desired amendments both puzzling and more than a little dicey for them. Of course, they also have the gun lobby to satisfy, so that’s a problem for them.

Also a problem: We are now at the time of the season when the House and the Senate hate each other.

With time dwindling on the legislative session, the Texas House is breaking until Sunday, in an attempt to send the Senate a clear message: Pass our priority bills or see your own legislation die slowly in our chamber.

House lawmakers expressed frustration on Thursday that some of their priority legislation had not moved in the upper chamber, including a package of health care and criminal justice reform bills pushed by House Speaker Dade Phelan.

“If the [Texas] Senate wants to kill or sit on important bills sent over by the House, they can expect the same in return. Starting today,” Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, tweeted Thursday morning. “As a wise House colleague once said, ‘The Senate can respect us. Or expect us.’”

The House is approaching tight deadlines, starting this Sunday, for moving forward Senate bills. But in a surprise move, the House recessed on Thursday despite having already set its agenda, or calendar, for both Friday and Saturday. Bills that were scheduled for those days will be picked up when the House reconvenes Sunday afternoon, but by recessing early with less than two weeks left in the session, House lawmakers have placed many of the Senate’s remaining bills in danger of not passing.

The deadline to set Senate bills on the House daily calendar is Sunday by 10 p.m. All Senate bills, except those on what’s known as the “local and consent calendar” — reserved for bills that aren’t expected to generate debate — must receive initial approval from the House by the end of Tuesday.

Several of the Senate’s priority bills still need the House’s approval, including that chamber’s response to massive power outages in the state this winter, and bills that would restrict transgender student athletes to playing on school sports teams based on their biological sex instead of their gender identity and require any professional sports team with contracts with the state government to play the national anthem before the start of a game.

There are some decent bills that have died in the Senate, and some bills that started out well but were then made less good by the Senate. And then there’s trash like the anti-trans sports bill. The legislative grim reaper isn’t particularly discerning, but on balance, and especially this session, the chaos and dysfunction mostly work in our favor. Failure is always an option, guys. I’ll believe it when I see it with permitless carry, but I sure want to believe it.

How many times will we fail to fix our power grid?

By “we”, I mean our Legislature, and the PUC, and the Governor, and the Railroad Commission, and pretty much everyone else in charge of this state.

Ten years ago, Texas power plants froze during a fast-moving winter storm, causing rolling electricity blackouts across the state. Outraged Texas regulators and lawmakers, vowing to crack down, debated requiring energy companies to protect their equipment against extreme weather to ensure reliability.

But they didn’t.

Nine years ago, two state agencies that regulate utilities and the oil and gas industry warned that natural gas facilities that lost power during outages couldn’t feed electricity generation plants, creating a spiral of power loss. The agencies jointly recommended that lawmakers compel gas suppliers and power plants to fix the problem.

But they didn’t.

Eight years ago, economists warned that the state’s free-market grid left companies with little incentive to build enough plants to provide backup power during emergencies. With the support of then-Gov. Rick Perry, legislators and regulators considered increasing power rates to encourage the construction of more power plants, so that Texas, like other states, would have sufficient reserves.

But they didn’t.

In the wake of each power failure, or near-failure, over the past decade, Texas lawmakers have repeatedly stood at a fork in the road. In one direction lay government-mandated solutions that experts said would strengthen the state’s power system by making it less fragile under stress. The other direction continued Texas’ hands-off regulatory approach, leaving it to the for-profit energy companies to decide how to protect the power grid.

In each instance, lawmakers left the state’s lightly regulated energy markets alone, choosing cheap electricity over a more stable system. As a result, experts say, the power grid that Texans depend on to heat and cool their homes and run their businesses has become less and less reliable — and more susceptible to weather-related emergencies.

“Everyone has been in denial,” said Alison Silverstein, a consultant who works with the U.S. Department of Energy and formerly served as a senior adviser at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. “They treat each individual extreme event as a one-off, a high-impact, low-frequency event, which means, ‘I hope it doesn’t happen again.’”

With each passing year, the grid has steadily become less reliable. In 1989, Texas suffered a cold snap considered worse if not equal to the winter storm earlier this year yet managed to keep the grid functioning, with only a few hours of rotating outages.

By comparison, February’s Winter Storm Uri brought the Texas power grid to within five minutes of complete collapse, officials acknowledged. Millions of residents were left without power for days in subfreezing temperatures; nearly 200 died.

“Our system now is more vulnerable than it was 30 years ago,” said Woody Rickerson, vice president of grid planning and operations at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. “With the generation mix we have now, the weather has the ability to affect wind and solar and (the gas supply). Those are things we can’t anticipate.”

It’s the first of a three-part series, and it’s a long read that will make you mad. The simple fact is that the system we have now works very well for some wealthy interests, and they are very good at defending their turf. Throw in an unwavering belief in the invisible hand of the free market and the general incentive towards doing nothing, and voila. Even the incremental steps forward have turned out to be meaningless:

As a result, the only legislation to come out of the 2011 storm was a minor bill from then-state Sen. Glenn Hegar, a Katy Republican, which required power companies to file weatherization plans with the PUC each year.

Two months after that bill was signed into law, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation put out a report of more than 350 pages, urging Texas to enact stricter weatherization standards for power plants and natural gas operators.

And they did to a degree, with ERCOT putting out best practices, conducting annual workshops and inspecting plants every three to four years.

But there were two problems. First, despite FERC’s recommendation, the state Legislature never gave the PUC authority to penalize power plants that did not comply, making weatherization voluntary. While progress was made, some companies opted not to bring their plants up to code, said Rickerson, the ERCOT vice president.

“Ultimately those were financial decisions that had to be made,” he said. “How much is someone willing to invest in a power plant that’s 50 years old and going to retire in a few years?”

More significantly, the best practices ERCOT was sharing were designed for a cold snap like that seen in 2011. While cold, with temperatures in Dallas dropping as low as 14 degrees, it was nothing compared to the 1989 winter storm, when temperatures dropped to 7 degrees in Houston and minus-7 in Abilene, let alone 1899, when the state’s all-time low temperature of minus-23 degrees was set in the Panhandle town of Tulia.

So when temperatures dipped into the single digits for days on end this February, most Texas power plants were simply not prepared. Exterior control equipment and fuel lines froze, not to mention coal piles and wind turbine blades.

“One power plant under freezing for 200-plus hours. That’s not a thing, right?” said Chris Moser, executive vice president of operations for NRG Energy, of expectations going into the winter. “If you look at the math ERCOT did prior to the seasonal assessment, it looked like (there was plenty of power). But then you have 80 to 85 plants not showing up. It was a failure of imagination.”

As for Hegar’s legislation, it has proved even more toothless than it appeared at the time.

According to a recent report from ERCOT, the agency was never given authority to judge the weatherization plans but only to check that they were being implemented. And a requirement in Hegar’s bill that the PUC produce a one-time Weather Emergency Preparedness Report, which was quietly published in 2012 and found that many power companies were still doing a poor job implementing reforms, drew little attention from state officials.

“When you’re on the commission, you’re dealing with what’s immediately in front of you,” said Ken Anderson, a former public utility commissioner. “I’m not sure how much follow-up occurred.”

Seems like this is a pretty good campaign issue for next year, especially given what is being prioritized over making the grid more robust. I’m just saying.

Lawsuit filed against Lubbock “abortion sanctuary city” ordinance

Looks like this kind of tactic will finally be tested in court.

Right there with them

Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas sued the city of Lubbock on Monday over a voter-approved “sanctuary city for the unborn” ordinance that seeks to outlaw abortions in the West Texas city’s limits.

The ordinance — which the lawsuit says is unconstitutional — was passed by local voters in May over the opposition of City Council members who warned it could not be enforced and would prompt a costly legal fight.

The lawsuit was filed in a federal district court and seeks to stop the abortion ban from taking effect on June 1.

Some two dozen cities have sought to ban abortions in their limits. Most of them have been in Texas but Lubbock is the largest and the first to have an abortion provider — making it a legal test case for the burgeoning “sanctuary city for the unborn” movement. Planned Parenthood opened a clinic to offer birth control and other services there last year, and began providing abortions this spring.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas previously sued seven East Texas towns that passed similar measures, but those cities weren’t home to abortion providers and had differently worded ordinances. The lawsuit was dropped.

The Lubbock ordinance would not be enforced by the government unless the Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, or made other changes to abortion laws. It instead relies on private citizens filing lawsuits. Family members of a person who has an abortion can sue the provider or someone who assists them in getting an abortion, like by driving them to a clinic, under the ordinance.

The ordinance does not make an exception for people pregnant as a result of rape or incest.

See here for some background. As things stand now, it seems likely Lubbock will lose this lawsuit. Not that such a loss will dissuade the ordinance’s fanatical supporters of anything – among other things, they won’t be on the hook for the legal bills – but it’s something. Of course, a fresh new challenge to Roe v. Wade is now on the SCOTUS docket, so how things are now may not be how they will be as of sometime next year. It’s a lot of not great.