AUSTIN (Nexstar) — State legislators came into this session facing a massive budget shortfall based partly on challenges from the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, they announced a compromise this week on a nearly $247 billion budget, which one lawmaker said would be a balanced budget.
“We kept the commitment we made last session to public education and then some,” State Rep. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, explained. “This budget maintains our commitment to education, meets our obligations to vulnerable Texans, strengthens public safety and funds many other priorities — all within our constitutional spending limits and population times inflation.”
However, experts said the state will see funding gaps in other areas.
For example, the spending plan did not make up for losses that state-owned higher education institutions experienced last year when they had to cut their budgets during the pandemic. DeLuna Castro with Invest in Texas previously told KXAN those institutions may push the costs to students in the form of tuition hikes.
“If universities think they have to respond by raising tuition, that will really be a growing burden for students that may already find college unaffordable,” Castro said.
State lawmakers will reconvene sometime in the fall for a special legislative session called by Gov. Greg Abbott, where they’ll help decide how the state will spend nearly $16 billion in coronavirus relief funds. Additionally, they’ll meet for a separate session about redistricting.
Abbott is also expected to release which budget line items he’ll veto at some point during the summer.
The governor is also expected to sign a bill into law soon that would allow Texans over the age of 21 to carry a firearm without any license or training. Under the legislation, individuals with a misdemeanor or felony conviction for unlawfully carrying a firearm would also have those convictions expunged from their record. Someone convicted for felony unlawful carrying of a weapon would be able to own a firearm again once their conviction is expunged.
The influence on policy of a session amid the pandemic
After a marathon day debating legislation with the end of session deadlines looming, the Texas Senate approved a measure early Thursday morning to increase Medicaid coverage for new mothers.
The committee substitute to House Bill 133 would raise Medicaid coverage for new Texas moms to six months after the birth of her baby. Currently, two months are covered. The bill passed out of the Senate in a 30-1 vote.
The legislation returns to the House for approval before it can advance to the governor’s desk.
Democrats also had high hopes heading into this session that they’d finally be able to get Medicaid expansion across the finish line, especially of inequities revealed more prominently by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, that effort went nowhere in the GOP-led legislature.
While Medicaid expansion failed, other bills directly influenced by the policies during the pandemic won approval. Lawmakers approved legislation to expand access to telemedicine. The bill makes permanent waivers that the governor put into place during the pandemic to allow greater access to telehealth services.
Lawmakers also approved more funding for mental health care. The budget plan includes more than $8-billion for treatment of mental illness and addiction.
Mixed results for criminal justice reform measures
After protests across Texas following the murder of George Floyd, many Texans expected lawmakers to pass reforms to the criminal justice system. The results have been mixed.
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. The omnibus bill failed to move forward this session.
Eric McDaniel, a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin said that result was not a surprise.
“I wasn’t expecting it to go through in Texas, given the nature of the legislature and just the general sense of Texas,” McDaniel said.
The most controversial part of the bill came in the form of proposed changes to qualified immunity, which is a protection for officers against civil lawsuits. That drew strong opposition from law enforcement groups.
“This thing is really a big issue, a big concern to the police officers. Just like doctors have to worry about malpractice suits, now police officers have to worry about malpractice suits,” McDaniel said, explaining opposition to the legislation.
While the full version of the George Floyd Act stalled, other lawmakers filed bills to separately advance less-controversial parts of the legislation. For example, a bill to ban chokeholds by officers cleared both chambers and appears likely to make it to the Governor’s desk.
But state leaders and many lawmakers directed attention toward legislation aimed at preventing cities from shifting funds away from police. Gov. Abbott made legislation to ban what he called “defunding police” an emergency item this session. That legislation passed.
“These are things that won’t die down,” McDaniel said of the calls for criminal justice reform. He expects that lawmakers will be called on to act in future sessions. “A lot of time with legislation, it has to be reintroduced repeatedly before it actually gets legs.”
Lubbock prepares for ERCOT switch as concerns remain after winter storm failures
The long-planned transfer of thousands of Lubbock electric customers to the power grid responsible for more than 80% of the rest of the state begs questions about reliability in light of the winter storm.
February’s freeze left tens of thousands of Texans in the cold and dark. More than 150 people died in the state, according to the latest estimate by the Department of State Health Services.
The team at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) welcomes the approximately 80,000 new meters-worth of customers— and the handful of facilities bringing generation power— with open arms.
“The new transmission assets are going to be increasing reliability, not just in the region, but also increasing reliability throughout the grid,” Warren Lasher, ERCOT’s Senior Director of System Planning, said in an interview. “I don’t don’t think there are any specific concerns at all.”
“There’s an enormous amount of engineering work underway,” Lasher said. “There are new transmission lines that have been constructed in order to reliably serve the citizens of the city of Lubbock that are moving over into the ERCOT region.”
ERCOT leadership admits it needs to regain the trust of customers and lawmakers. State Rep. John Frullo, R-Lubbock, said he was hopeful customers in his district won’t see a real change when the switchover happens.
“When we turn that light switch on, we want power, and we want to be able to afford that bill,” he said.
Lubbock’s State Senator Charles Perry, also a Republican, said his largest worry about the move pertained to preventing future deaths.
“My biggest concern is, we don’t want people to die when their power doesn’t come on,” he explained.
From a regulatory standpoint, lawmakers have proposed several measures to address shortcomings with the electrical grid and ERCOT’s management of it.
One proposal would require weatherization of equipment for power generation companies. Another focused on the makeup of ERCOT’s board of directors and its governing body, the Public Utility Commission of Texas. That bill would require the members of those panels to be Texas residents. One of the others sets up an energy disaster reliability council to oversee an electric grid crisis.
“We will have done the things regulatory-wise that will hopefully open up the opportunities to do what needs to be done to not guarantee but minimize the disruptions going forward,” Perry said.
Lasher said the winter storm had little-to-no effect on the planning for the transition, which was approved by the Public Utility Commission in 2018. Lubbock becomes the largest city to join the ERCOT grid in nearly three decades.
Making the Texas grid more reliable
The February freeze taught the U.S. Department of Energy and Secretary Jennifer Granholm a key lesson: the nation’s energy grid needs additional investment to prevent weather events from crippling communities.
“We have to — not just in Texas, but everywhere — invest in the grid,” Granholm said in an interview. “We have to invest in making sure that we’ve got a grid that can sustain these weather events.”
Granholm suggested the cybersecurity hacks on the East Coast pipeline system, as well as a recent breach of an Austin-based software company, revealed vulnerabilities in the nation’s energy infrastructure she argued could be better defended against.
“We are seeing these infrastructure meltdowns across the country, whether it’s in transmission or in roads and bridges,” Granholm noted, making her pitch for President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan.
Biden’s infrastructure package would commit more than $100 billion to “shoring up our nation’s transmission grid and expanding its capacity,” Granholm said.
“I think everybody wants to see Texas have a reliable grid, right?” Granholm said. “Everybody wants to make sure that your energy supply is secure, and that it doesn’t pose problems like we have, like we saw in February.”
“I completely understand the ethos in Texas that they don’t — that Texas doesn’t want to be under the federal government’s regulatory arm,” she noted. “But I do think that there is a way to be able to allow the rest of the country to help in times of need.”
Granholm suggested that expanding access to the grid could bring a financial boost to the state. She said Texas has “an unbelievable amount” of resources in renewable energy like wind and solar.
“To be able to export that might be able to be economically advantageous to Texas as well,” Granholm said.