Lawmakers Scrap Over ‘Outside Groups’

by Published on
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Courtesy PUC Website.

Although it was eventually defeated, some lawmakers were blindsided by a surprise effort to strip out a key part of an uncontroversial “sunset” bill reauthorizing the Public Utility Commission.

Angry debate erupted after the bill’s author, Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana), allowed an amendment that would’ve gutted a previously-uncontested portion of the legislation. The amendment, courtesy of Republican freshman Rep. Matt Krause of Fort Worth, removed a provision that allowed PUC to issue emergency cease-and-desist order to utility companies creating public safety hazards or threatening the reliability of the power grid.

Rep. Rafael Anchía (D-Dallas) pointed out that up until this point the provision had encountered little resistance.

“None of the stakeholders who testified ever raised it as an issue,” he said.

More important than the merits of the issue at hand, however, was a political drama. Several lawmakers raised the specter of “outside groups” pressuring members to hold the whole bill hostage to Krause’s amendment.

“What you’ve got is some right wing interest, ideological interests, involved in the very important issue of utility regulation,” Rep. Lon Burnam (D-Fort Worth) told the Observer. “That’s the reason you’ve got mainstream Republicans expressing their concern about this amendment and you’ve got Democrats expressing concern.”

Democrat Rep. Ron Reynolds pointedly asked Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford), who was speaking in favor of Krause’s amendment, to name the outside groups. King refused.

But he didn’t need to name names. It was the usual, familiar suspects: the Texas Public Policy Foundation and right-wing activist Michael Quinn Sullivan’s Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.

TPPF’s Bill Peacock wrote that the cease and desist authority is “completely unjustified” because there are no “problems in the Texas electricity market.” But TPPF, which incidentally receives a significant amount of funding from the state’s major utilities, will be disappointed. The Krause amendment was torched. Cook ended up voting against the amendment, along with 86 other House members.

As the Quorum Report wrote, the “ takeaway was that in the first vote of the session in which Texans for Fiscal Responsibility flexed its muscle — going so far as to let members know that this was a report card vote — they still lost.”

HB 1600 goes on to the Senate with the “cease and desist” provision intact.

Oh, and despite the drama, legislators did manage to tack on a few additions to the PUC bill. One amendment, floated by Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) mandates a cost-benefit analysis for any change that would cost over $100 million for consumers. Another of the 16 attached amendments, introduced by Cook, would allow any of the three governor-appointed PUC commissioners to have invested in no more than 10 percent of PUC-regulated public utilities 2 years prior to appointment.