AUSTIN (Nexstar) – Beto O’Rourke, a Democratic candidate for Texas governor, continues his “Keeping the Lights On” tour of Texas on Thursday in San Antonio, where he unveiled his five-pronged policy proposal for fixing the state’s electric grid.

His proposals include the following, according to his campaign:

  • Require gas companies to weatherize their infrastructure “with a clear, enforceable standard”
  • Lower Texans’ utility bills through direct assistance and energy efficiency programs
  • Connect Texas to the national grid
  • Establish an independent market monitor to investigate future price gouging and market manipulation
  • Sue the oil and gas companies that made $11 billion in one week

His tour came as an ice freeze swept across the state last weekend, in what many considered as the first big test of the grid after the 2021 winter storm. While there were local outages, Gov. Greg Abbott touted the grid as being “more reliable and more resilient” than ever before, crediting the changes in weatherization requirements he helped spearhead.

O’Rourke rejected that notion in an interview with Nexstar’s Monica Madden.

“Thankfully, last week’s weather was mild compared to last year’s winter storm. And if we saw severe or extreme weather like we had last February, this grid is not up to the task because Abbott has not winterized the gas supply,” he said.

Natural gas producers were not required to weatherize to the same extent power generators have. The Railroad Commission, which oversees Texas’ natural gas providers, did pass a rule that designates critical natural gas infrastructure to keep the largest suppliers flowing gas during winter weather. However, the weatherization deadlines aren’t until later this year.

O’Rourke also stopped Wednesday night in Austin as part of his tour that is scheduled for 12 days and will travel 2,100 miles around Texas to detail his plan to avoid future blackouts and grid failures like the one in February 2021.

Following the statewide blackouts due to the 2021 February winter storm, Gov. Greg Abbott signed two bills into law that overhauled the state’s electric administrators, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. It reduced the board of directors for ERCOT from 15 to 11 and it allowed other Texas leaders to have a say on board appointments, rather than just the governor.

The tour began Feb. 4 in El Paso, O’Rourke’s hometown, and ends Feb. 15 in Houston — one year after millions of Texans lost power due to what O’Rourke said was a “preventable grid collapse.”

The other bill forced electric providers and generators who operate in the ERCOT grid to weatherize their plants and improve communication during emergency situations and outages with an alert system.

Abbott also campaigned in San Antonio Thursday in a meeting with business leaders. His campaign has sharply rebuked O’Rourke’s tour, accusing the El Paso Democrat of fear-mongering.

“Beto O’Rourke is at it again, this time lying to Texans about the resiliency of the power grid as a result of the bipartisan reforms passed by the Legislature last year,” said Mark Miner, a campaign spokesperson, in a statement. “…[He] is instead attempting to mislead voters in a pathetic attempt to prop up his flailing campaign.”

When Nexstar asked for O’Rourke’s response to this criticism, he said he’s “standing up for Texans” who suffered during last year’s storm.

“This message is resonating, because they know they’ve been let down by the governor. They know the grid is not fixed. And they know that we need justice in Texas. That’s why we’re running,” he said.

“I welcomed a terrorist into my congregation” – Rabbi calls on Congress to add funding for security at houses of worship

Last month’s attack on a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas is bringing new calls for steps to protect houses of worship. A gunman entered Congregation Beth Israel, then held people hostage for 11 hours before Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker helped them escape.

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker says January 15th started out as any normal Saturday. He and a volunteer were setting up for sabbath service at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. Then a stranger appeared at the door.

Cytron-Walker let the man come inside, not knowing what he would do next.

“I welcomed a terrorist into my congregation,” Cytron-Walker said.

For the next 11 hours, that man held the rabbi and three members of the reform Jewish synagogue hostage. It wasn’t until Cytron-Walker threw a chair at the gunman that they were able to escape. The gunman was killed moments later as law enforcement entered the synagogue.

On Tuesday, Cytron-Walker asked Congress to double federal funding for security for worshippers. The current program allows houses of worship to apply for grants of up to $100,000. The funds can be used for security measures like fences, cameras, or hiring guards.

New Jersey Democratic congressman Tom Malinowski says because of budget limits, only about half of the non-profits who applied last year actually received funding.

“We do not have enough resources and the numbers bear that out. Fully 45% of applications right now are rejected,” Malinowski said.

To fix that, Democrats and and Republicans agree the program needs more than the $180 million dollars in the current budget.

Progress with paper plate fix at Texas DMV

Emerging from an hours-long closed session, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles board promised a fix to the state’s paper tag problem.

“We want to get this right,” said TxDMV board member Brett Graham. “We want to get it right for you. We want to get it right for the citizens of this state.”

Some of the changes the board has made are already working so far, according to law enforcement. Det. Mike Bradburn with Travis County Constable Pct. 3 says he used to see “25,000” fraudulent paper tags a week. Now, it’s in the “low hundreds.”

“There’s an immediate impact,” said Bradburn.

He says some crooks are now reverting back to trying to produce tampered tags instead of infiltrating the TxDMV’s system to print real ones. In 2018, the agency implemented new security features — like watermarks — to cut down on counterfeiting.

The board said Thursday it hopes to vote on fingerprinting new and existing car dealers in the coming months to cut down on phony dealerships created using stolen identification.

Central Texas sheriff’s deputy David Kohler holds up a temporary tag he was able to obtain on Feb. 5 with a VIN that, he says, should have been rejected by the TxDMV but wasn’t. (KXAN Photo/Richard Bowes)

At the Jan. 27 board meeting, TxDMV enforcement division attorney Brian Ge was asked if vehicle identification numbers longer than 17 digits could be entered into its system.

Seventeen digits became the standard in 1981.

In December, Sgt. Jose Escribano with Travis County Constable Pct. 3 purchased a temporary tag in KXAN’s name, registering it to the Dallas Cowboys stadium with a VIN containing periods.

Law enforcement says characters that aren’t allowed in VINs — like periods and exclamation marks — are no longer able to be entered but VINs of any length can be.

“Has the programming been corrected so that only a 17-digit VIN, and it has to be the correct format of an actual VIN, has that been corrected?” asked board Vice Chair Tammy McRae.

“Yes it has,” responded Ge. “It was corrected when it was first brought up several years ago. And then when we noticed a defect that was brought to our attention in December and that was corrected the day after.”

But Central Texas sheriff’s deputy David Kohler says he has proof that isn’t entirely true.

“There is still another issue with VIN verification that has still yet to be resolved,” said Kohler.

Five days ago, he was able to register VINs with 15 and 18 characters — two below and one above the standard of 17. He says the VINs the TxDMV is allowing would be rejected on websites like CARFAX.

“Oh, I didn’t know that,” said TxDMV board member Stacey Gillman.

“We do not have VIN decoding software on the system,” said TxDMV Acting Interim Executive Director Shelly Mellott. “It’s definitely something we’re looking at and we think it’s a great idea.”

Mellott says some states, and older cars or trailers can use longer VINs. The board is considering VIN verification tools to verify what is being input into the system is legitimate — something Kohler says is crucial to keep law enforcement, and the public, safe.

“[The car] could have been involved in a kidnapping or a homicide or could be a stolen car,” said Kohler. “Or it could have been involved in a hit-and-run where there’s a fatality…and you have no way of knowing.”

All of this is coming at a time of uncertainty for the agency now with general counsel Tracey Beaver resigning just days after executive director Whitney Brewster, amid a series of KXAN investigations and turmoil over the agency’s handling of the state’s paper license plate problem.

Brewster’s name still appeared on Thursday’s agenda, which is a reflection of her sudden decision to depart the agency abruptly. Both Kohler and Sgt. Jose Escribano with Travis County Constable Pct. 3 says it’s even more surprising given that Brewster offered to meet with them at the Jan. 27 meeting in an effort to improve communication with law enforcement.

“It was too sudden for me. Where did that come from?” he asked. “I have questions on that…I don’t know what to say…that was just sudden and you’re gone? Your counsel? I have questions.”

Escribano said he is happy with the changes made so far by the TxDMV but also worries the sudden shakeups at the agency will slow down the progress made so far.

He says law enforcement is ready to help the agency if asked.

“We are not going to stop,” he said. “Until we fix this.”

New CDL rules come at challenging time for Texas trucking industry

There are new rules of the road for those looking to get their first commercial driver license, and they come at a challenging time for the industry in Texas and across the nation.

This week, long-delayed federal regulations kicked in, requiring would-be drivers and those looking to upgrade their licenses to complete minimum federal training requirements before being permitted to take certain CDL tests.

The rules, known as Entry Level Driver Training (ELDT), took effect Monday.

They affect anyone applying for a Class A or Class B CDL for the first time, upgrading an existing CDL to a Class A or B, or obtaining a school bus (S), passenger (P), or hazardous materials (H) endorsement for the first time.

Delbert Crawford, the director of Austin’s Changing Lanes CDL School, welcomes the changes.

“It will make the roads safer,” he told KXAN. “They should have come out with this rule a long time ago instead of delaying it.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation had to hold off on its rollout of ELDT for two years as the government worked to set up the technical infrastructure to keep track of student certifications and the schools cleared to provide the training.

Roy Hawkins, Director of Strategic Partnerships for Southern Careers Institute in Austin, told KXAN the requirements could “help the industry in the future.”

“Having standardized curriculum and outcomes across the United States for people who are entry level drivers is a very good thing,” Hawkins said.

But training comes with a cost — several thousands of dollars, depending on the school.

“That’s not a small sum of money for a lot of people, said Ken Snipes, the director of Austin Resource Recovery (ARR), the city’s waste management utility.

“People won’t be able to now just walk up to someone who has a truck and say, ‘Hey, can you teach me how to drop your truck?’ Now you will be required to go to a school for formalized training,” he said. “It could pose a barrier.”

Snipes said ARR provides its own training for CDL drivers.

As KXAN has reported, the utility has been dealing with a shortage of drivers and truck operators, impacting some collections services in the city.

“Staffing is problematic across the industry,” he said.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of last summer, roughly 33,000 CDL jobs remained unfilled from pre-pandemic levels, and there was already a shortage even before COVID-19.

“It’s not just COVID, there is an aging population in the trucking industry,” Hawkins said. “People are exiting the industry to retire, and there are not enough people coming in.”