Patrick was peeved because we almost all won a $350 credit on our electric bill. Almost. But as quick as the idea popped out of Patrick’s state Senate, it was unplugged by the House.
Rejection by House leaders riled Patrick, and as a true Texan might say, he set his hat at a fightin’ angle.
“They ignored us,” he complained to his colleagues.
He made one last try to get the House to approve using almost $3 billion for $350 credits to electricity customers served by power grid operator, Electric Reliability Council of Texas. The money would come from an existing state gross-receipts tax on utilities. The credit would have helped about 25 million residential customers served by ERCOT.
House bill managers told Patrick’s negotiators it was too late, Patrick recalled. “The message was, ‘We’re out of time.’”
You can do a lot in a 140-day session, but only if you want to.
Molly Ivins once said, “I think of Texas as the laboratory for bad government.”
This was on display during the final weekend in Austin. Like fifth-graders who save their important homework for the last possible moment or not at all, Texas lawmakers often save the important stuff for the final hour before the deadline. Maybe they work better under pressure, except actually they don’t.
This practice of delaying decisions until there’s too little time to debate leads to bad laws. The rush-rush allows secret last-minute deals and opens holes for lobbyists to sneak in last-moment quickie amendments that make their corporate clients all too happy. By the end, bills come so fast lawmakers don’t have time to read them.
Often, when lawmakers finally get in high gear, it’s too late to know what’s really happening. Example: Who knew Patrick was pushing a last-minute $350 credit? It didn’t get attention. But that credit would certainly ease some of the pain caused by lawmakers’ decision to permit the borrowing of billions of dollars in bonds.
Money raised from the bonds will be used to pay outstanding bills for utility-related companies that got whomped in the February freezeout. Not your bills.
You and I are looking at surcharges for those bonds on our electric bills that we may be paying for the next 30 years. How much will be borrowed now, at what interest rate and what kind of payback? Nobody knows. Cue the bond lawyers.
The final days and hours are called a legislative logjam, except it is members’ bills, not logs, that seem to fall everywhere. Only the strong survive.
One of the most famous examples of pushing things to the last minute occurred in 1991. With eight minutes until midnight on the final night of the session, lawmakers approved a state sales tax of 2%. Hey, sales tax: Happy 30th birthday.
None of the electricity bills about to be signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott are going to help you the way that credit would. The bills that passed won’t prevent summer brownouts and winter blackouts for at least 18 months or so.
The (p)UC expands from three to five members. ERCOT will be under stronger political control. Weatherization of crucial parts of electricity generation and transmission systems will begin, but not right away. A statewide alert system will be built. And critical life-or-death locales will be marked and protected during power outages.
A session to remember
Much happened in the final days. House Democrats walked out for only the fourth time in state history. The House adjourned for two full days in the final week to give the light gov on the other side of the Capitol a House version of a spanking.
You can carry a gun without going to a half-day class. Abortions are practically outlawed. Transgender people are left alone, for now. An election bill promises more turmoil in a coming, soon-to-be-announced special session.
Perhaps the only true surprise came when Abbott threatened to veto paychecks for the entire legislative branch, starting with the new fiscal year on Sept. 1. Can he do that? Can an executive branch defund and wipe out a legislative branch, including all its supporting employees? Not in my America.
But what I’ll remember most is the bitterness in the light gov’s voice when he stood before the Senate and repeatedly scolded the House for holding electricity bills until the final hours.
“You can’t take two days off with five days to go,” Patrick said. “You put yourself in a box where you’re up against a deadline.”
He added, “We passed the bills in April and get the bills back with five days to go without the proper time to negotiate with the House.”
Note: House members will tell you the same thing happened to their bills sent to the Senate.
Although the House debated all of a minute before passing the big bond bill, the Senate talked about it bitterly. The House sent the bill over the previous night at midnight. Mistakenly, the $350 credit was inserted in a draft copy. But it would fly out into the darkness.
Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, said, “Last night, with five minutes left, we were told to accept what they sent us or else.”
Or else ERCOT wouldn’t be able to pay its bills, we’re told, and the state grid would be in more jeopardy than it already is.
Gutierrez reminded, “We lost 200 people. People froze in their homes. A $110 billion in property damage. A $350 credit is the least we can do.”
Then the senators held their noses, and just before midnight, voted 26-5 to approve the unknown billions in bonds. It was too late to make changes.
We’re told that borrowing $4 billion to $5 billion in bonds will make companies and utilities whole. Under one scenario, Texans will pay it all back in 30 years. Mark your calendar for the year 2051.
The sad part of this is you could do an autopsy on almost every bill that lives or dies, and it’s never a pretty look. Take Patrick. I don’t mean to mark him as a hero in this story. He blames the House for delays. But don’t forget, he didn’t unleash his $350 credit until the final days, too.
In the end, only results matter. In this case: Companies, yes; consumers, no.
Yep, a laboratory for bad government. But apologies to the ghost of Molly Ivins. It hurts too much to laugh.