State of Texas: Power grid reform and border barrier plans

State of Texas

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Gov. Greg Abbott signed two bills into law on Tuesday afternoon, both stemming from the February freeze that left millions of Texans without power as temperatures plunged into the single digits in some areas of the state.

Senate Bill 2 will reform the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, cut the current ERCOT board from 15 members to 11, and allow the state’s top leaders to weigh in on those appointments rather than just the governor.

Senate Bill 3 is the omnibus post-winter storm reform bill, which requires electricity providers operating on the ERCOT grid to weatherize their equipment and improves communication during outages with an alert system.

Abbott made it a legislative priority to address ERCOT’s issues following the February storm. He said the two bills adequately address the issues Texas’ power grid faced during the February storm.

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“Bottom line is that everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas,” Gov. Abbott said Tuesday afternoon.

“[SB 3] addresses coordination, communication, oversight, and reliability,” SB 3 author State Sen. Charlies Schwertner added. “It is an omnibus bill that does, as the governor said, address many of the concerns that were brought forth by the winter February storm.”

Author of SB 2, State Sen. Kelly Hancock (R – North Richland Hills), agreed.

“Our ultimate goal was to make sure that those individuals, those consumers, our constituents back home, never ever had to deal with this issue ever again,” Sen. Hancock said.

Under SB 3, power generators who fail to meet new weatherization requirements could face up to a $1 million fine, per violation.

But energy experts, including Michael Webber, said the bills don’t solve all of the issues.

“There’s a lot more we could have done,” Webber, an energy professor at University of Texas, said Tuesday.

He said the bills should have done more to require our gas infrastructure to winterize as well.

“The priority of Senate Bill three was around winterizing or weatherizing the power system, not enough was on gas, almost nothing was done for our homes and businesses,” Webber added.

He said the bills also could have improved infrastructure in homes with insulation upgrades, but at a cost.

“We already have programs and incentives for energy efficiency, but we can accelerate them and ramp them up to improve the efficiency of homes,” Webber said. “A well-insulated home will keep a cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.”

Another UT energy expert, Joshua Rhodes, said lawmakers should also consider the future of Texas as a whole, especially with climate change.

“A changing climate is different. We can’t really look to the past to look forward anymore. And so I think we need to take into account the reality of the climate is changing, and what that will mean for infrastructure. So that as we make long term plans, you know, we can be incorporating that so that we don’t, you know, have as many emergencies, like we had in February,” Rhodes said.

Energy experts hope lawmakers will consider more reform before another extreme weather event hits, but said these bills are a good start.

“Kudos to the legislature, they did something which is more than what they can say for 2011. After that blackout, they didn’t do anything. So this is a big step forward,” Webber said.

Mike Collier, Democratic candidate for Lt. Governor, also criticized the governor and the legislature. He said they have left Texas unprepared.

“I know that Texas requires wholesale changes and fixes to our grid and crumbling infrastructure,” Collier said, pointing to his previous experience in the oil and gas industry.

Federal bills aim to counter state measures tightening voting rules

Advocates of federal voting rights laws led a rally outside of the Supreme Court on Wednesday, urging the Senate to pass a voting rights bill that is currently being blocked by Republicans and some Democrats.

“The right to vote, the cornerstone of our democracy, is under attack,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York said Wednesday.

Democratic senators from Gillibrand to Georgia’s Raphael Warnock joined groups urging the Senate to pass the “For the People Act” to increase voter access and reform campaign finance laws.

“It’s so important that we not miss this moment,” Warnock said.

Progress is stalled in the Senate by those who oppose the federal overhaul of state elections.

“The framers of the constitution wanted the states to chart their own course, not Washington bureaucrats,” Sen. John Cornyn said.

The Texas Republican opposes the bill — as does West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin. Without Manchin’s support, the bill’s fate is in jeopardy.

But Senator Warnock said he’s not about to let this act fail.

“There are conversations right now happening in the US Senate,” Warnock told Washington Correspondent Kellie Meyer. “There’ll be some back and forth. Some sausage making but, in the end, if the people can’t have their voice in a democracy, it’s not a democracy.”

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has said they’ll continue to work with Democratic leadership on a path forward.

“We’re going to use the White House. As a convener, we’re going to use the bully pulpit,” Psaki said.

Despite limited support from some of his own colleagues, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the Senate will vote on the bill in June.

Border barriers get new attention from both Governor and primary challenger

In a security summit on Thursday, Gov. Abbott addressed the current state of the southern border and what actions he would be taking to secure it in the future.

“There used to be a commitment to say we are going to secure our border. Now the commitment is that anybody who wants to come in is going to be allowed to come in. A change is needed,” said Abbott. The audience in Del Rio, Texas, which is less than ten miles from the Texas-Mexico border, applauded his comments.

“Cartels, drug smugglers and human traffickers, they’re profiting off all of us. They’re making money by smuggling people in from countries you haven’t even heard of before,” Abbott added.

Abbott said he intends to sign an emergency declaration next week to allow DPS to work with local officials to arrest people who enter the country illegally.

“What this will do, it will focus on making arrests,” Abbott said. “The Department of Public Safety will work with local officials to arrest anyone who enters our state illegally and is found trespassing against them. We will be arresting a lot more people in the future, so more jail space will be required.”

Cracking down on illegal immigration is a popular position for many Texas voters. A study published in February found that 45% of Texans either somewhat or strongly agreed that people who enter the U.S. illegally need to be deported immediately. Those who strongly agreed were ten times more likely to be Republicans than Democrats.

Abbott said he’ll share plans next week for the state to build a wall along the Mexico border, but he offered no other specifics about how the project would proceed. That announcement drew a standing ovation and cheers Thursday evening from the crowd gathered at the border security summit in Del Rio. 

The Governor’s announcement a day after Abbott’s first primary challenger, former GOP state senator Don Huffines, told KXAN in an interview that he wants to finish the wall, regardless of the federal government’s wishes.

“I am not asking permission from the federal government to secure Texas’s border. This is our border. We fought a war over this border, it was defined with the blood of Texas patriots, and we’re not going to give it back to Mexico,” Huffines said.

Elaborating on this point, Huffines explained that the federal government is to blame because they are the ones keeping the border open, and Texas needs to step up to take care of the issue.

Huffines said he believes many Texas Republicans are tired of Abbott’s administration.

“Is the border secure? No. Property tax going down? No. Do we have confidence in our elections? No,” Huffines said, as he claimed that Abbott is not the correct person to lead Texas.

Huffines said that if he’s elected, he would work to eliminate property taxes in Texas. He asserted that this is a priority for the Republican party, and without “real, courageous leadership,” it will never happen.

When questioned about his plan to replace the revenue which property taxes provide, Huffines explained that it is all very doable by relying on an increased consumption tax. He said a more detailed plan will be released later in the campaign.

Huffines said he decided to run for governor when Abbott ordered a lockdown in March of 2020.

“It was last year when the governor shredded our Constitution — our federal constitution, our state constitution — when he put over 3 million Texans out of work in one week. He destroyed more jobs than this state created in 15 years. And he did that in one week. He destroyed businesses. He didn’t ask permission, he just did it unilaterally,” said Huffines.

If Huffines had been in charge during the height of the pandemic, he explained that he would have called the legislature into session and allowed them to determine the best way to guide Texas through the crisis.

So far, only Huffines has announced his intention to challenge Abbott in the Republican primary. He’s confident about his chances.

“Republicans are smart,” Huffines said. “They’re tired of their party platform never being approved into legislation and I’m going to change that.”

Hurricane planning gets boost from state lawmakers

In the days after Hurricane Harvey tore the roof off their Rockport, Texas home in the summer of 2017, Bronson and Linda Hamilton immediately started rebuilding.

The Hamiltons, who teach at area schools, spent the next three years and thousands of dollars returning their coastal cavern back to ship shape.

“It’s going to take a long time, it’s going to take a lot of money, a lot of hard work,” Bronson Hamilton said in an interview in what was left of his kitchen a few days after Harvey hit. “But Rockport is going to survive.”

As the state’s coastal communities attempt to return to some kind of normal, state lawmakers attempt to help prevent future storms from causing similar devastation to Harvey, which caused upwards of $125 billion in damage— second only to Hurricane Katrina.

During the regular legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill to create a Gulf Coast Protection District to take charge of planning for and constructing a coastal barrier to protect against storm surge. Senate Bill 1160 also creates framework for approval of coastal projects recommended by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The legislation awaits Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature. He can choose to sign it, veto it or allow it to become law without a signature.

“Living on the coast, you get the advantage of being able to go fish in the ocean a little easier and you got the beautiful sunrises and sunsets,” said State Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, who serves on the House’s Culture, Recreation & Tourism Committee. “You get the coast vibe, but you also have hurricanes.”

Clardy said Texans who live in Southeast Texas have learned to prepare each year for disasters and bounce back.

“It’s remarkable how well we withstand very strong hurricanes,” he noted.

House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Republican whose Beaumont district often lies within the path of devastating storms, said the state’s legislative investments would strengthen the coast in the future.

“When they give you the list of names of hurricanes… it’s time, right?” Phelan said in a June 1 interview at his Capitol office.

Phelan cited the coastal spine, or “Ike Dike,” legislation as a solution to a decades-long “huge issue.” The nickname comes from Hurricane Ike, a 2008 storm that caused $38-billion in damage.

Projects like the Ike Dike drew bipartisan backing, and support that crossed regional boundaries.

“We know that these storms impact our state in so many ways, from environmental issues, to economic issues, you know, health and safety issues as well,” State Sen. César Blanco, D-El Paso, said. “So it’s not hard to be supportive of other regions.”

When the calendar flips to June, state agencies kick into gear reminding Texans about the potential for deadly storms.

“It’s all about preparedness,” Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush said in an interview last week. “Every June 1, we always reach out to constituents [and] remind them to have a plan.

“Everybody in Texas needs to have a plan, whether it’s for evacuation or taking care of your most trusted documents and belongings, even if you have pets, making sure that they have a plan as well with the local kennel or local shelter because during Hurricane Harvey we saw a massive amounts of pets die because they were neglected during the storm itself, and we had close to 100 deaths in our state.”

Both Bush, who heads the Texas General Land Office, and Seth Christensen, chief of media and communications at the Texas Division of Emergency Management, encouraged Texans to purchase insurance coverage to help recoup losses after damaging storms.

“It takes 30 days for that flood insurance policy to go into effect,” Christensen said. “So buying that flood insurance policy sooner rather than later is very important, especially because we’re now at the beginning of hurricane season and it only takes one storm to damage your home or your property.”

Meantime, the Hamiltons are grateful their Rockport respite is finally finished. Phelan, too, hopes for a quiet summer.

“I have a very resilient constituency, and we just, we get up each morning we put our boots on and we go back to work regardless of Mother Nature sends us,” Phelan said.

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