Week in Review: A Digest of What Happened This Week at the Capitol

February 26, 2021

Legislative News

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Delays caused by the Feb. 13-17 winter storm, unofficially known as Winter Storm Uri, continue in Austin. The House stands adjourned until 2 p.m. Tuesday, March 2, although the Appropriations Subcommittees will meet Monday through Thursday during the first week of the month.

The Senate will return at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, March 2. The Senate Finance Committee will also meet Monday through Thursday, March 1-4.

Senate Redistricting canceled hearings scheduled for Friday, Feb. 26 and Saturday, Feb. 27. Both meetings would have taken place at the Capitol.



Lieutenant Governor Announces his Priorities for the Session

On Feb. 23, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick revealed his top priorities for the 87th Legislature. The list included 31 bills on subjects ranging from abortion to redistricting. As expected after last week’s storm, reforming the Electric Reliability Council of Texas and power grid stability appears high on the list – just after the state budget. For the full list of the priority bills, most of which have not yet been filed, see his press release.

House State Affairs and Energy Resources Joint Hearing on Power and Water Outages

The House Committees on State Affairs and Energy Resources held a joint public hearing to consider the factors that led to statewide electrical blackouts during the last week's storm; the response by industry, suppliers, and grid operators; and changes necessary to avoid future power interruptions.

Testimony from industry leaders discussed their processes for disaster preparation including winterization of facilities, communication with the public and the Legislature, and recovery. The 15-hour discussion began with the first panel of energy leaders fielding questions for four and a half hours followed with other testimony late into the evening. The consistent tone of the discussion was that there are many flaws in the system and all involved should be willing to come to the table and bring solutions.  Added as an emergency item by Gov. Greg Abbott, discussions will continue throughout session.

Senate Business and Commerce Hearing on Power and Water Outages

The Senate Committee on Business & Commerce met on Thursday, Feb. 25 to hear reports from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the Public Utility Commission, and the Railroad Commission, among a total of 30 invited witnesses representing the broad group of stakeholders responsible for supplying, maintaining, distributing, and operating Texas’ electric, gas, and water systems. On the heels of 4.5 million Texans losing power, interest in the committee’s investigatory hearing extended beyond its membership into the ranks of the full Senate.

Chairman Kelly Hancock (R-Richardson) accommodated that broader interest by moving the hearing to the Senate chamber and allowing participation by all senators. The hearing stretched far past its scheduled 5 p.m. adjournment, until recessing in the evening to reconvene again on Friday, Feb. 26. The exchanges were spirited at times, as complex subject matter, differing opinions, conflicting testimony, and frustration at the scope of the disaster collided. With data still being collected and analyzed, policymakers will not have all the information needed for some time.

Gov. Abbott designated response to this disaster as an emergency item and has indicated he will call the legislature into special session as needed.

Disaster Relief for Counties

On Feb 26, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) added 18 more Texas counties to President Joe Biden’s Major Disaster Declaration for Individual Assistance.  Earlier this month, Gov. Greg Abbott requested a Major Disaster Declaration for all 254 counties. FEMA initially approved 77 counties for individual assistance and granted emergency protective measures for all 254 counties.  A few days later, FEMA approved individual assistance for an additional 31 counties.

 Abbott has urged Texans to fill out the Individual Assistance – State of Texas Assessment Tool found on the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM) website so emergency management officials can gain more understanding of the damage across the state. For residents with limited or no internet access, a call center has been launched to assist in completing the State of Texas Assessment Tool. Texans can call 844-844-3089 between 8:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. seven days a week to submit their disaster damage information.      
    
Additionally, Gov. Abbott has waived certain regulations to enable trucks from the alcohol industry to deliver necessities to grocery stores. Also waived are certain education regulations for certain registered and qualified plumber’s apprentices, as well as additional licensees to assist with repairs to water damaged pipes across the state.

Full details can be found on the Office of the Texas Governor news page.

Evictions

On Feb. 11, the Texas Supreme Court issued the 35th Emergency Order Regarding The COVID-19 State of Disaster. This order renews the Texas Eviction Diversion Program which was first established through their 27th Emergency Order. The Office of Court Administration states, “The order allows an eviction proceeding to be abated by agreement for 60 days, requires courts to provide tenants with information about the program, and makes court records for participants confidential while eviction cases are delayed. The order also outlines procedure for reinstating evictions.”

As of Feb. 15, the diversion program is available to all counties. In addition to renewing the previous order, the 35th Emergency Order also centralizes administration of the program in the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA).

Landlords and tenants are able to apply for help with unpaid or future rent; however, both must sign the application. To qualify for help paying rent or utilities, households must make no more than 80% of the area's median income as determined by TDHCA. Priority will be given to households if they make less than 50% of an area's median income or if at least one household member has been unemployed for 90 days or longer.

TDHCA has opened applications, and they will remain open until all available funds have been committed. More information is available here, including median income by county and household size.

Hotline for Public Water Systems

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has implemented a dedicated hotline to assist Public Water Systems (PWS) locate laboratories for bacteriological samples required to rescind their Boil Water Notices.

In the event a PWS is unable to engage their commonly used laboratory (or back-up laboratory) to run bacteriological samples, please contact TCEQ at 1-855-685-8237 between the hours of 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. TCEQ staff will assist PWSes in identifying and locating laboratories in their area to conduct this bacteriological sampling.

TCEQ will assist in locating a laboratory, but the PWS is responsible for all sampling and transportation costs.