2021 Texas Lege in Review: Red Meat, Broken Promises, and More of the Same Old Shit

Texas Republicans proved too busy burnishing their far-right bona fides to attend to minor matters like lethal winter storms and mass incarceration.

From left, Rep. Chris Paddie, Governor Greg Abbott, and state Sen. Kelly Hancock, pose as two energy related bills Abbott signed are displayed on June 8, 2021. Abbot signed legislation into law to reform the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) and weatherize and improve the reliability of the state's power grid.
From left, Rep. Chris Paddie, Governor Greg Abbott, and state Sen. Kelly Hancock, pose as two energy related bills Abbott signed are displayed on June 8, 2021. Abbot signed legislation into law to reform the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) and weatherize and improve the reliability of the state's power grid. AP Photo/Eric Gay

Texas Republicans proved too busy burnishing their far-right bona fides to attend to minor matters like lethal winter storms and mass incarceration.

From left, Rep. Chris Paddie, Governor Greg Abbott, and state Sen. Kelly Hancock, pose as two energy related bills Abbott signed are displayed on June 8, 2021. Abbot signed legislation into law to reform the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) and weatherize and improve the reliability of the state's power grid.
From left, Rep. Chris Paddie, Governor Greg Abbott, and state Sen. Kelly Hancock, pose as two energy related bills Abbott signed are displayed on June 8, 2021. Abbot signed legislation into law to reform the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) and weatherize and improve the reliability of the state's power grid. AP Photo/Eric Gay

On Tuesday at the state Capitol, Governor Greg Abbott signed into law two bills aimed at strengthening the electric grid and reforming the agencies that regulate it. It was the culmination of the Legislature’s response to a devastating winter storm that crippled the state’s energy system and killed as many as 700 Texans, according to a recent Buzzfeed investigation

Before signing the bills, Abbott confidently declared that “everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas.” 

But for all the self-congratulation among state leaders this week, grid reform was but a minor feature of the legislative session. Republicans spent most of their time passing through extreme legislation that all but bans abortions, permits most anyone to carry a handgun without a license, restricts how race and history can be taught in Texas classrooms, punishes budget cuts in urban police deparments, and on and on.

The laws Abbott signed will require power plants to weatherize their facilities against extreme weather conditions, increase coordination between regulatory agencies, overhaul the leadership of those agencies, and institute a statewide weather alert system, among other things. The reforms are substantial—but energy experts warn that they go nowhere near far enough to actually prevent another winter catastrophe.  Legislators went easy (again) on the natural gas industry. Senate Bill 3, the most comprehensive of the reforms, requires power generators and transmission line operators to weatherize their facilities. Despite the fact that natural gas supply disruptions were the biggest contributor to February’s grid meltdown, the law requires only gas facilities deemed to be “critical” to weatherize, a determination that will be made by the industry-friendly Railroad Commission. 

A provision that would have helped fund backup power generators for critical water, electric, and health care facilities—including nursing homes and dialysis centers—was removed from SB3. And although hundreds of Texans were hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning, legislators didn’t consider joining 38 other states in requiring homes to have carbon monoxide detectors. 

The law will take effect in six months. However, lawmakers declined to set a deadline for when regulators must begin actually enforcing the law. House Democrats proposed an amendment to establish a six-month deadline for enforcement after the regulatory agencies create their weatherization rules. But the bill’s architect, Representative Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, opposed the idea, citing “financial and operational concerns,” and the proposal was voted down. Another amendment to make penalties mandatory also failed.

A bill to reform the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT)—which politicians like Abbott blamed for the blackouts—will politicize board appointments by putting the governor, lieutenant governor, and House speaker in charge of the process. Another bill to strengthen the maligned Public Utility Commission, which oversees ERCOT, emerged from behind closed doors in much weaker form. The law currently requires all three commissioners to be “well informed and qualified in the field of public utilities and utility regulation.” That’s a reasonable expectation for regulators of the country’s second-largest electricity market, but legislators ultimately decided that applied to just two commissioners. 

Overall, the Legislature failed to provide any relief to Texans who were devastated by the storm. A Senate amendment that would have provided direct relief aid to Texans was ultimately stripped out. Lawmakers did, however, manage to pass $6.5 billion in state bonds to stabilize natural gas and electric utilities that were hit by huge price spikes. The cost will be passed on to utility customers through a surcharge on their monthly bills, which means ordinary Texans will be paying a few extra bucks each month for at least the next couple decades.

For Abbott and other top Republicans, the 87th legislative session was all about political posturing ahead of a primary, where Abbott will be challenged by a former tea party senator, as well as the GOP party chair who spent the last weekend of session at a QAnon convention in Dallas. And Abbott’s camp believes it got what it needed. “It’s an excellent session,” Dave Carney, Abbott’s chief political strategist, told the Dallas Morning News. “We had a great number of items that are attractive to Republicans and independents. We’re in great shape.”

Still, there was much ballyhoo among Republicans after they failed to pass a number of conservative priorities, including their restrictive voting bill Senate Bill 7 (which was killed after House Democrats broke quorum). Republicans also ran out of time to wrap efforts to limit “taxpayer-funded” lobbying and pass so-called anti-censorship measures against big tech social media platforms. Abbott has already signaled that he’ll call a special session to bring up the “election integrity” legislation up again, along with what is sure to be a menagerie of other right-wing bugbears. —Justin Miller 

Wrong on Crime 

Texas is a collection of myths, one of which has recently framed the state as a national leader on “bipartisan criminal justice reform.” Like most good delusions, there’s a kernel of truth there. Decades ago, lawmakers faced having to spend billions on building new prisons because of dramatically rising rates of incarceration. Instead, the state’s GOP-dominated Legislature reduced the prison population and mothballed several old lockups—mostly by reforming probation departments and funding more alternatives to prison, like substance use treatment programs and drug courts. 

Protestors in Austin call to defund the police after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 30, 2020.  Gus Bova

While Texas conservatives have called the state “emblematic of the growing movement to be both tough and smart on crime,” lawmakers here have failed to do much else in recent years beyond avoiding billions in new prison spending. Even as traditionally tough-on-crime neighbors like Oklahoma relax drug laws, similar reforms fail in Texas session after session; despite a growing legalization movement across the country, the state still has some of the nation’s harshest marijuana laws on the books. Texas lawmakers named legislation after Sandra Bland in 2017 but have repeatedly failed to pass police reforms that would have prevented her violent roadside arrest in the first place. This session was no different: On the heels of the international movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd, a bipartisan coalition of Texas lawmakers vowed to push a series of reforms aimed at a “compassionate, common sense approach to justice.” Almost all of the reforms they proffered failed or were watered down. 

While the Texas House took these issues at least somewhat seriously this session, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s Senate remained a killing field for bills aimed at reforming the criminal legal system. Meanwhile, conservative lawmakers rammed through other regressive measures —such as Governor Greg Abbott’s priority to punish cities that reduce funding for law enforcement, ensuring Texas police budgets remain bloated in perpetuity. Scott Henson is a writer and advocate for criminal justice reform who has tried to bridge the right and left on prison and policing issues at the Texas Legislature since the 1990s; he recently published a particularly bleak outlook on the 87th session, calling it part of broader “lurch toward totalitarianism.” At the very least, this session should kill any notion of Texas as a national leader when it comes to reforming criminal punishment and mass incarceration. —Michael Barajas

Labored Away

Essential workers, despite a year of being praised as “heroes” on billboards around the country, did not receive a hero’s treatment during Texas’ 87th legislative session. For instance, most state employees were denied a wage increase, extending a yearslong trend. Among the snubbed were workers at state-supported living centers, where employees who care for Texans with disabilities often earn less than $25,000 annually. The living centers, like nursing homes, were slammed with deadly COVID-19 outbreaks last year. The Legislature also declined to pass significant reform to its unemployment system, which failed spectacularly to provide prompt benefits to out-of-work Texans during the pandemic. El Paso state Representative Mary González, a Democrat, proposed a bill to create a public-facing database of employers who’ve committed wage theft, but the measure died for the fifth straight session. 

“Essential workers, who risked everything to keep Texas going through [an] unprecedented pandemic and winter storm fallout, were hailed as heroes,” says Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy. “But as we survey where the legislative session ended up, all that is a foggy memory.” —Gus Bova

Corporate Immunity

State lawmakers passed two bills this session that would protect companies from lawsuits when they cause the death or injury of a person. House Bill 19 would make it more difficult to sue trucking companies after their drivers hurt or kill someone in a wreck. Senate Bill 6 would strengthen lawsuit protections during pandemics for nursing homes, which came under fire for failing to protect residents from COVID-19. State Representative Jeff Leach, a Republican from Allen, is carrying both House Bill 19 and the House companion for Senate Bill 6. Both bills have passed through the Legislature and await the governor’s signature. 

A fatal accident near Major Drive in Beaumont, Texas, taken on September 20, 2018.  Guiseppe Barranco /The Beaumont Enterprise via AP

In 2020, Leach received approximately $1 million in campaign contributions from the Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC. For decades, the group has sought to erode plaintiff’s rights to sue as part of a larger movement known as tort reform. Texans for Lawsuit Reform and its allies have successfully lowered lawsuit risk for doctors, auto manufacturers, apartment owners, and others. If Governor Greg Abbott signs these bills into law, the group will count two more victories. —Christopher Collins

Indigenous People’s Day

Since 1977, a national movement to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day has been growing across the United States. So far, Austin, Dallas, El Paso County, San Marcos, San Antonio, and Houston all recognize the holiday. Texas, however, does not. This session, the Texas House and Senate wrestled over whether or not to replace the day, ultimately deciding to opt for a Indigenous Peoples’ Week that will occur on the second week of October for the next 10 years. The final version of the resolution was passed unanimously by both the House and Senate.

The resolution recognizes that Indigenous people “built empires, constructed sophisticated cities, and developed elaborate trade networks and complex social systems.” Indigenous Peoples’ Week is intended to raise awareness about the rich heritage and contributions that Indigenous nations have made to Texas and the country. The governor has until June 20 to sign the bill into law. —Pauly Denetclaw

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