AUSTIN (Nexstar) — This week, jury selection began for Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer charged in the death of George Floyd. The third-degree murder case is drawing attention to police reform and accountability in Texas.
Last May, a video surfaced showing Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, even after Floyd repeatedly said he could not breathe. Floyd’s death sparked social justice marches, protests and rallies across the country, including many in Texas.
Lawmakers took action, as well. Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would federally ban neck restraints and overhaul qualified immunity protections for police officers. In order for the Democratic bill to pass the Senate, it needs 10 Republican votes.
“It is just a question of whether or not a law enforcement officer who violates their responsibility to the public can be held accountable,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas).
In Texas, State Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) authored the George Floyd Act, which bans chokeholds and requires police officers to intervene if another officer uses excessive force. However, the most controversial part of the bill is where it changes qualified immunity, which is a protection for officers against civil lawsuits.
“It is a huge sticking point and the reality is that we’re going to have to figure out whether or not that will pass,” West said.
West said he is having “good-faith negotiations” with Gov. Greg Abbott, who has pledged to defend law enforcement. Police groups, such as the Texas Municipal Police Association, are against taking away any qualified immunity. Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association, wants it off the table completely.
“It would cause fewer and fewer people to take on that role, to take on that obligation,” Lawrence said.
Political experts, such as Executive Director Jim Henson of the Texas Politics Project, say there is room for negotiation on police reform, especially where investing more resources comes into play.
“The problems are the positions taken by the outer ideological wings in both parties,” Hensen said.
West also co-authored the Mike Ramos Act. Mike Ramos was a man shot and killed by an Austin Police officer last year when he was unarmed. The bill was filed by State Senator Sarah Eckhardt on Thursday.
The bill directs the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement to create a new training model about de-escalation of force and establishes a list of offenses that would lead to a police officer’s license being revoked. Those offenses include lack of competence in performing duties, illegal drug use, lack of truthfulness in court and a pattern of excessive use of force.
“The Mike Ramos Act is one of many bills this legislative session that address systemic inequalities in our criminal justice system,” Eckhardt said. “Systemic inequalities that have had such an incredibly negative, harmful and even deadly affect on communities of color.”
Brenda Ramos, Mike’s mother, hopes this bill will prevent more people from dying the way her son did.
“It means everything to me that the Mike Ramos Act will train police to de-escalate rather than escalate like they did to my son,” said Brenda.
The Mike Ramos Act would also expand police camera footage. Access to public information, such as these videos, has been on the mind of public information advocates for some time now, and they are getting one step closer to greater transparency when someone dies in police custody.
State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) has been working on legislation since last fall that would give the Attorney General’s office more power to hold police agencies accountable for breaking the law. The bill Rodriguez filed earlier this month gives the Attorney General the power to investigate when they receive a complaint about a law enforcement agency. If the death reports aren’t fixed after a notice is issued, they can be fined at least $1,000 a day. The Attorney General’s office may sue for the money owed, and the money will go into the state’s crime victim compensation fund. The bill is currently awaiting committee assignment in the House.
Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso) also filed a police transparency bill. This bill addresses the dead suspect loophole which has been investigated by KXAN for the past three years. The loophole is when Texas police can choose to permanently withhold public information if someone dies in their custody. Moody’s bill aims to close that loophole and create a public database for use-of-force reports, which would make requests for body camera footage more simple by requiring the release of video from “critical incidents.”
Moody has filed similar bills in the past that have failed because of opposition from powerful police unions. However, Moody believes they have a stronger chance this session due to the nationwide focus on police reform from the past year.
Lawmakers aim to curtail Governor’s emergency powers
Opening up Texas 100% and lifting the mask order was only the most recent of Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive orders to cause controversy and debate. Abbott has been under fire from people across the political spectrum over how he used his emergency powers during the pandemic.
Republicans criticize the governor for his shutdown and statewide mask mandate, while Democrats criticize him for limiting local governments’ powers to respond to the virus. Now, lawmakers in both parties want to scale back the governor’s powers.
Since there was no framework in place for the unexpected pandemic, a rushed outline had to be put in place. During the interim between legislative sessions, H.B. 3 was enacted to outline who is responsible for which roles during the pandemic.
Lawmakers now want to establish a Pandemic Oversight Committee. The committee would be made up of key members from several committees, including the Lieutenant Governor and the Speaker of the House. The committee could override disaster declarations and strike suspension or waiver of rules.
Lawmakers have also proposed a bill to prevent the closure of firearms stores and churches during a pandemic.
The main reason lawmakers are upset is because the governor was the central decision-maker for the entirety of the pandemic. So, an amendment is being added to the bill to give lawmakers more input about federal pandemic funding.
Another concern is civil liability protections for small businesses. State Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock) filed a bill to ensure businesses operating safely during the pandemic are not prosecuted. However, even Burrows admits this bill is not perfect and needs work to ensure it’s not taken advantage of.
Why some parts of Texas were spared from the winter storm power crisis
You can’t get any farther west in Texas than that sharp point on the map of El Paso. When a major winter storm hit Texas in 2011, El Paso went dark.
A federal report revealed El Paso Electric lost all eight of its power generators during that storm. It took the power utility three days to get its units running.
El Paso’s low temperatures dipped to 14°F for two days and didn’t rise above freezing for six nights during the February 2021 week storm. Under a blanket of snow and ice, the lights stayed on this time.
“I think from El Paso Electric and all of its employees, this was personal. And, we made a commitment in 2011 that we said, ‘We’re never going to let this happen again.’ And, our employees made the changes that were necessary,” El Paso Electric Vice President of Operations Steve Buraczyk told KXAN.
The electric utility spent $4.5 million to winterize two of its older power plants. That process took EPE 18 months to finish, Buraczyk said. The utility also built a third plant with the latest winterization technology.
EPE’s winterization efforts protect the utility’s generating plants to -10°F, according to Buraczyk.
The new plant, known as the Montana Power Station, was online and running in 2016, just five years after the 2011 storm that left millions of Texans without electricity. Despite the successes, Buraczyk said natural gas flow to two of its plants caused the utility trouble during last month’s storm.
Natural gas failures last month were blamed for several of the power plant failures inside the ERCOT grid. A pair of executives from Dallas-area power utilities told lawmakers the state’s power sector relies too heavily on natural gas to power generating plants and the freezing weather stopped the flow of gas throughout Texas.
“This was, to some extent, the performance of generators, but the big story here, again in my opinion, was the failure of the gas system to perform,” Vistra CEO Curt Morgan told a House committee on Feb. 25.
Vistra is an energy company located in Irving.
Morgan told the committee 60 to 70 percent of the power generation in Texas relies on natural gas and the electric and gas generation didn’t work “in tandem” during last month’s storm.
“In this storm, natural gas stepped up in a major way to produce power for our electric grid providing the majority of power available during the storm. Loss of power impacted natural gas transmission and was a significant reason natural gas production slowed during February’s winter storm. While the extreme weather created obstacles, many producers deployed winterization techniques such as methanol injection, temperature activated pumps, steamer units, equipment shelters, and insulated critical lines and valves and could have continued producing had it not been for the power losses outside their control. Without power, no amount of winterization would have prevented wells from a reduction or halt in production. We believe the ability to designate natural gas production and transmission as critical load with power providers, and mapping the system to ensure supply chain and power continuity, is part of the key to protecting Texans.”TODD STAPLES, TEXAS OIL AND GAS ASSOCIATION PRESIDENT
Preliminary data released by ERCOT this week shows 1,661 units that either experienced an outage or derate between Feb. 14-19, 2021. Of those, 783 were natural gas-powered units and 767 were wind generation units.
|FUEL TYPE||# OF UNITS|
|Energy Storage Resource||12|
Data released by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas shows the number of each “outage or derate” of every ERCOT-registered Generation Resource or Energy Storage Resource that happened any time between Feb. 14 and 19.
Natural gas provides more than 50% of the energy for Texas’ grid, while wind power comprises just over 19%, followed by coal at more than 16%. Nuclear, solar, hydroelectric, biomass, other fossil fuels and oil combined account for just over 11% of Texas’ energy.
Following the 2011 storm, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission released its report into the power outages that happened. The report showed 4.4 million people lost power across Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
Within the Electric Reliability Council of Texas’ grid, 3.2 million customers lost power in the 2011 storm. The latest figures show 4.4 million lost power in the 2021 storm.
The 2011 report detailed nine findings — half of those dealt with Texas’ lack of winterization inside its power grid. Regulators wrote the word “winterization” a total of 92 times in the report.
“Generators were generally reactive as opposed to being proactive in their approach to winterization and preparedness. The single largest problem during the cold weather event was the freezing of instrumentation and equipment. Many generators failed to adequately prepare for winter“2011 FEDERAL ENERGY REGULATORY COMMISSION REPORT
The report listed several steps gas and electric utility companies should’ve taken after the 2011 storm: “failed or inadequate heat traces, missing or inadequate wind breaks, inadequate insulation and lagging (metal covering for insulation), failure to have or to maintain heating elements and heat lamps in instrument cabinets, failure to train operators and maintenance personnel on winter preparations, lack of fuel switching training and drills and failure to ensure adequate fuel,” the report stated.
Despite criticisms from electric utilities toward gas utilities in the 2021 storm, the FERC report shows natural gas wasn’t a major contributor in the 2011 ERCOT power grid failures. “Gas curtailment and gas pressure issues did not contribute significantly to the amount of unavailable generating capacity in ERCOT during the event,” the report stated.
When ERCOT issued its power curtailment order in the early morning hours of Feb. 15, utility companies across the state started pulling the plug from homes and businesses.
Lubbock wasn’t one of those places.
The ERCOT grid covers most of Texas. Only 41 of the state’s 254 counties do not fall under ERCOT’s power grid, according to a map posted to the ERCOT website. El Paso is the largest county outside of ERCOT’s purview.
The 41 counties either produce their own electricity or are part of an electric cooperative. The people in those counties are also connected to the two multi-state power grids that cover the rest of the country and stretch into Canada.
Lubbock will soon join ERCOT’s grid in June, giving up its current connection to the Southwest Power Pool, a multi-state power grid that stretches north of Texas, covers all of Oklahoma and hugs the Mississippi River to the Canadian border.
“Does Lubbock have any hesitation at this point of joining ERCOT’s grid?” KXAN investigator Jody Barr asked Lubbock Mayor Dan Pope.
“Sure, we have hesitation,” he replied. “And what we saw happen Valentine’s week causes us a bunch of pause. We’re very concerned.”
Lubbock, like El Paso, did not experience prolonged power outages last month despite temperatures that week barely reaching into double digits. Plainview, a town just north of the city of Lubbock, had a wind chill of -1°F on Feb. 15, according to KLBK meteorologist Heidi Waggoner.
“We had some — a couple days of very short and well-planned and executed rolling outages. So, it wasn’t like we were without issues,” Pope said.
Pope confirmed the electrical problems that cut power to millions of other Texans last month didn’t happen in Lubbock. The mayor said the main problem for Lubbock County came from natural gas.
“The curtailment of natural gas to our industrial users was probably the most significant impact. We had manufacturing plants that were down for more than a week,” Pope said. Lubbock went 30 hours without natural gas flowing, according to the mayor.
Lubbock decided around 2015 to leave the national power grid and join ERCOT. That process has taken years and by June, Lubbock plans to have 70% of its power infrastructure connected to ERCOT’s grid. Pope acknowledged the SWPP’s grid provided Lubbock with a reliable source of electricity in both extreme summer temperatures and the occasional winter storm.
“Do you have confidence that ERCOT — by the time the city of Lubbock is fully on board — that the problems we saw last month in this storm will be taken care of and the people of Lubbock will have reliable electricity?” Barr asked Pope.
“You know, a big part of that decision is ensuring the reliability is in place,” Pope said.
“You know, the timing may be good. We’re glad we found it out now, before we’re all in,” Pope said. He’s optimistic the 2021 storm will force the legislature to address the apparent insufficient winterization inside Texas’ power sector.
“If Lubbock were part of the ERCOT grid on Feb. 14, this storm could have been a much different story for your city,” Barr said to Pope.
“I think that’s a fair statement,” the mayor responded.
Dozens of Texas lawmakers walked through the Capitol doors on Feb. 25, looking for answers. The House and Senate met in two separate hearings that included CEOs of large power utilities, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas CEO Bill Magness and the Public Utility Commission of Texas Chairwoman DeAnn Walker.
“In 10 years, nobody moved to vote or to bring to the table — you or none of your board members did that as it relates to weatherization?” Texas Senator Borris Miles asked ERCOT CEO Bill Magness.
“We opened up programs on weatherization, but we didn’t have the ability as ERCOT to have a mandatory weatherization standard for the plants,” Magness told Miles and the entire Senate committee.
“Mr. Chairman, I think that’s something we should put into statute,” Miles said as he closed his questioning of Magness.
Multiple lawmakers spent 15 hours questioning the people in charge of different aspects of the Texas power grid on Feb. 25. Within the next few days, PUC Chairwoman DeAnn Walker resigned and Magness was terminated by the ERCOT board.
Many questions centered on why none of the 2011 winterization recommendations from the FERC report were turned into requirements. The winterization elements were left as mere suggestions, according to Sen. Roland Gutierrez, who questioned Magness in the Feb. 25 hearing.
ERCOT did implement “spot checks” to review the steps energy companies take each year, but without a mandate to winterize, Magness said there wasn’t much ERCOT could do to force the issue.
“I guess the rest was just at the whim of the PUC and the whim of ERCOT was to ask utility companies to please, pretty please winterize your plants. That’s about as far as it went, which was pretty please,” Gutierrez told KXAN.
“Short of doing a book report and telling people why you’re not doing this right, there was no stick by way of a fine or other type of regulation that would have made electric utility companies do the right thing for their consumers,” he added.
Gutierrez told Magness he would file a bill forcing power generators and utility companies in Texas to winterize. Within hours of the hearing, Gutierrez filed SB 817. The bill, if passed, would set a penalty of $100,000 per day for any “water, electric, or gas utility” in Texas whose failure to properly winterize leads to an interruption of service.
“It’s almost as if nobody even gave a damn,” Gutierrez said of what he believes is a lack of thoroughness in implementing the 2011 FERC recommendations. “And certainly, the folks at the PUC and ERCOT that had the ability to make the recommendations to the legislature at that time didn’t do it.”
The legislature did consider SB 1133 in 2011, which initially required “weatherization” for all utility companies in Texas. But, the weatherization mandate “was removed before it passed,” former PUC Chairwoman DeAnn Walker told the Senate committee on Feb. 25.
The final bill did require electric utilities to submit annual “winter weather emergency preparedness” reports to the state by Sept. 1 of each year. Those reports are what Gutierrez called “book reports.”
Gutierrez was a Texas House member at the time.
“Absolutely, there are folks that are responsible for this that didn’t vote for those types of recommendations. We need to move forward and ensure that we’re doing the right thing here and it just didn’t happen,” Gutierrez said.
“We’ve got to make sure that it never ever happens again. This winterization bill is an opportunity to be able to do that,” Gutierrez told KXAN.
Gutierrez’s bill received first reading on March 11 where the House assigned the bill to the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce. The committee does not yet have a hearing date set for Gutierrez’s proposed legislation.
Comparing Texas to other states in Phase 1C
Beginning Monday, March 15, a wider swath of Texans will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations — as part of the 1C priority group. Texas DSHS announced Wednesday people 50 to 64, who account for 20% of all fatalities, will be able to be vaccinated as the next most-vulnerable group.
Phases 1A and 1B, which include health care workers, seniors and Texans with chronic conditions, launched in December. Since then, nearly six million Texans have been partially vaccinated. Then, the state added teachers and childcare workers to the list at the beginning of March.
Many Texans are asking when other workers deemed essential will be included in the rollout. Short answer: it’s unclear.
As of March 1, data from the Kaiser Family Foundation showed 13 other states had not released plans for Phase 1C. Meanwhile, 36 states had already released detailed plans for each phase or opted to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations.
Before vaccine doses were available to states, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) from the CDC released these guidelines for how to allocate the initial supply:
- Phase 1a: Health care workers, long-term care facility residents
- Phase 1b: people ages 75+ year, non–health care frontline essential workers
- Phase 1c: people ages 65–74 years, persons ages 16+ years with high-risk or underlying medical conditions, any additional essential workers
Earlier this month, Arkansas gave food plant workers vaccine access. North Carolina grouped essential workers into several “groups,” and state leaders phased in Group 3 this week, including transportation workers and food service employees.
States such as New York, Colorado and Wisconsin specifically mention grocery workers in their plans. Oklahoma plans note transit workers in their Phase 1B.
Several states have opted to include people living in congregate settings, like group homes, shelters, prisons and jails in earlier phases.
DSHS and the expert panel focused on hospitalization and fatality data to formulate Texas’ priority phases.
“Overwhelmingly, those that are more severely impacted — and when I say that I mean those that are hospitalized or have the most severe outcome of death — are in our 65 years and older and individuals that have comorbidities that put them at greater risk of a severe outcome,” said Imelda Garcia, the DSHS associate commissioner for laboratory and infection disease services.
Like many Austinites, Stacy Aannestad has been helping her nearly 90-year-old parents with registering for the COVID-19 vaccine.
“You almost have to game the system in order to get an appointment. My 89-year-old dad doesn’t know how to game the system. I don’t even know how to game the system,” she said.
After a year of staying at home, her parents are worried about heading to a vaccine distribution site. Plus, transportation isn’t easy for them, she said.
“[My mom] is struggling with where to go where she doesn’t either have to ride in the car for a very long time or stand in a long line, but also very concerned with being in a space with a lot of other people,” Aannestad said.
She was thrilled to read about the Save Our Seniors initiative, utilizing National Guardsmen and partnerships with Meals on Wheels to distribute vaccines to homebound seniors, but there was one big problem.
The highly touted program isn’t available in Travis County or even in nearby Williamson and Hays Counties.
On Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott announced 34 counties would be participating in the second week of the program. The state analyzed several data points regarding the vaccine rollout in order to choose the participating counties, with a focus on “allocating vaccine equitably across the state,” including:
- Number of approved providers serving the area
- Total allocations over the previous 12 weeks
- Data showing the least vaccinated counties for both 65+ and 75+ administered doses
“With the Save Our Seniors initiative, Texas is providing vaccines to seniors across our state who are most at risk from COVID-19,” Abbott said in a release. “For the second week of the program, we have allocated over 10,000 vaccines to reach the most vulnerable populations in our communities. I thank the men and women of the National Guard who are carrying out this important mission to protect seniors in need.”
Aannestad asked KXAN investigators, “Why do we not have a program like this?”
In a presentation to Travis County Commissioners Court and Austin City Council, Austin Public Health officials said they’re working on it.
APH Director Stephanie Hayden-Howard said they are working with at least eight nonprofit partners.
“They assist us with determining where we can be. They assist us with a list of folks that they are going to refer to us,” she said.
Then, she explained, APH would come in and organize appointment schedules and administer the vaccines.
Hayden-Howard noted their partnership in particular with Meals on Wheels Central Texas — indicating this effort could be rolled out as soon as March 22. She also said they were working with the Housing Authority on setting up vaccine events in the community rooms of some senior living apartments or places where high volumes of high-risk people might live. Additionally, she said there were churches compiling lists of their congregation who qualify and want the vaccine, in order to hold convenient vaccine events — possibly on Sundays.
District 2 Austin City Councilwoman Vanessa Fuentes asked what options might be available to seniors not affiliated with any of these programs or nonprofits.
“If I’m an Austinite that’s not affiliated with any of those entities, then it’s up to me to get registered online or to call the number?” she asked.
In response, Hayden-Howard said the participating nonprofits were also referring names of people in this situation to APH. They still encourage anyone who can to use the online sign-up portal to ensure they don’t miss anyone.
“Our staff will be doing home visits with folks who say, ‘me and my wife are disabled and homebound. We are not working with any of those organizations.’ Basically, our staff will be able to go into their homes to provide those vaccines,” she said.
- To hear more from this joint APH briefing, click here.
When asked if they had considered a truly “mobile” vaccine clinic operated out of a van or vehicle, Hayden-Howard said the purchasing department was “considering” contracting with a third party vendor on this type of effort.
Travis County Judge Andy Brown said, “I think our duty is to make sure we have full capacity in the entire county — east, west, north and south — so that when we get these mass quantities, we are making them available to people no matter where they live, no matter what their income is, no matter what their ability is to drive somewhere.”