Cassandra Pollock

Texas House speaker signs civil arrest warrant for state Democrat who returned to Washington

Speaker Dade Phelan signs civil arrest warrant for Texas House Democrat who returned to Washington

"Speaker Dade Phelan signs civil arrest warrant for Texas House Democrat who returned to Washington" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, signed a civil warrant for the arrest of state Rep. Philip Cortez, a San Antonio Democrat who rejoined his colleagues in Washington, D.C., on Sunday to help prevent the passage of a GOP-backed election bill.

The warrant is not likely to have impact since Texas law enforcement lacks jurisdiction outside the state. It is the first one signed by the speaker since more than 50 House Democrats left the state to block Republicans from having the quorum needed to pass legislation during the special legislative session that began earlier this month.

Last week, Cortez returned to Austin from Washington in what he said was an attempt to engage in "good faith dialogue" about House Bill 3, the election legislation. Other Democrats criticized Cortez's move, saying the lawmaker did not first consult with them before returning to Austin.

By Sunday though, Cortez was back in Washington, saying in a statement that talks with lawmakers in Austin on negotiating the legislation "have not produced progress."

In a statement Monday, Phelan said that Cortez "has irrevocably broken my trust and the trust of this chamber" after the lawmaker "represented to me and his fellow members that he wanted to work on policy and find solutions to bring his colleagues back to Texas."

"As a condition of being granted permission to temporarily leave the House floor, Rep. Cortez promised his House colleagues that he would return," the speaker said. "Instead, he fled the state."

Cortez, who chairs the House Urban Affairs Committee, did not directly address the warrant in a statement Monday that said he owes "a duty to my constituents to do everything I can to stop this harmful legislation."

"I will continue fighting for my constituents to ensure fair and full access to the ballot box," he said. "All Texans deserve nothing less."

Later Monday, during a virtual meeting with reporters, state Rep. Jim Murphy, a Houston Republican who chairs the House GOP Caucus, did not express any frustration with Cortez returning to Washington and said he hoped the lawmaker would return to Austin again. Other Republicans applauded Phelan for signing the warrant, including state Rep. Jeff Leach of Plano, who had questioned the night before why Cortez wasn't arrested before leaving the state.

After Democrats left the state, the House voted overwhelmingly to issue what's known as a "call of the House" in an effort to regain quorum. Part of that effort included sending law enforcement after those Democrats, though Republicans acknowledged that state authorities couldn't force lawmakers back to the Texas Capitol so long as they remained out of state.

The current special session is slated to end Aug. 6, and Democrats have said they do not plan to return to the state before then. Gov. Greg Abbott has said he plans to call additional special sessions to get his priority legislation passed.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/07/26/dade-phelan-civil-arrest-warrant-house-democrat-philip-cortez/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas gov vetoes funding for state Legislature as punishment for Democrats' walkout on elections bill

"Gov. Greg Abbott vetoes funding for Texas Legislature and its staff as punishment for Democrats' walkout on elections bill" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Gov. Greg Abbott followed through Friday on a threat to veto a section of the state budget that funds the Texas Legislature, its staffers and legislative agencies.

The governor's move targeting lawmaker pay comes after House Democrats walked out in the final days of the regular legislative session, breaking quorum, to block passage of Senate Bill 7, Abbott's priority elections bill that would have overhauled voting rights in the state. The move also killed bail legislation that Abbott had earmarked as a priority.

In a statement, Abbott said that “funding should not be provided for those who quit their job early, leaving their state with unfinished business and exposing taxpayers to higher costs for an additional legislative session."

“I therefore object to and disapprove of these appropriations," the governor said.

House Democratic Caucus Chair Chris Turner of Grand Prairie called the move by Abbott an "abuse of power" and said the caucus "is exploring every option, including immediate legal options, to fight back."

"Texas has a governor, not a dictator," Turner said in a statement. "The tyrannical veto of the legislative branch is the latest indication that [Abbott] is simply out of control."

Since Abbott issued his threat earlier this month, other lawmakers and political leaders have raised concerns over how the move could impact staffers and legislative agencies that are funded by Article X, which is the section of the budget he vetoed, such as the Legislative Reference Library and the Legislative Budget Board.

“I'm just concerned how it impacts them because they weren't the ones who decided that we were going to break quorum, it wasn't their decision, right?," said House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, in an interview earlier this month.

Questions have also been raised about the constitutionality of the move, which according to the Legislative Reference Library is unprecedented.

Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who heads the Senate, expressed support for Abbott's proposed veto, saying the move could force Democrats to come back for a special session.

The biennial budget at hand covers the fiscal year beginning Sept. 1. If lawmakers are back in Austin for a special session before then, they could pass a supplemental budget to restore that funding.

Lawmakers are paid $600 a month in addition to a per diem of $221 every day the Legislature is in session, during both regular and special sessions.

The Legislature is expected to convene for at least two special sessions, Abbott has said in interviews. One, set for September or October, will focus on the redrawing of the state's political maps and the doling out of $16 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds. Before that, the governor has said he will call lawmakers back to work on the elections and bail bills, as well as other issues he has not yet announced.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/06/18/greg-abbott-veto-legislature-democrats/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

'Change the culture': Texas lawmakers react to allegations a lobbyist gave date rape drug to Capitol aide

"Texas lawmakers, lobby firm react to allegations that a lobbyist gave date rape drug to Capitol aide" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

After the Texas Department of Public Safety confirmed Saturday it's investigating an allegation that a lobbyist used a date rape drug on at least one Capitol staffer, a prominent Austin-based lobby shop said Sunday it had launched an internal investigation into the matter, telling state lawmakers in an email that the firm and its employees “do not and will not tolerate a culture where anyone is not valued with respect and dignity."

The DPS investigation, first reported by the Austin American-Statesman, stems from a complaint recently made by a Capitol staffer, though officials have so far declined to comment on further details — including the names of anyone allegedly involved.

“This is an ongoing investigation," DPS spokesperson Travis Considine told The Texas Tribune on Saturday, “and further details cannot be released at this time."

Spokespeople for Gov. Greg Abbott and House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, confirmed to the Tribune that their offices had been notified of the DPS investigation late last week.

On Saturday, state lawmakers, staffers and other Capitol observers denounced the alleged incident, with several House members declaring on social media that they were banning from their offices any lobbyist or lobby firm associated with the accusation.

“While the investigation is pending, the accused lobbyist(s) and their firm(s) are banned from my office; and, if true, will be permanently banned," tweeted state Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican who chairs the powerful House Calendars Committee, which decides what legislation makes it to the House floor for debate and for when.

A number of female House members, including both Republicans and Democrats, suggested that such an action is not enough.

“Change the culture," state Rep. Ina Minjarez, D-San Antonio, tweeted Sunday. “Ensure [the alleged victim] receives full support & the services she needs. Invest in the safety of our staffers & believe them if they ever outcry. CHANGE THE CULTURE."

Another House member, freshman state Rep. Shelby Slawson, R-Stephenville, said Sunday that her office would be “off limits to all lobbyists" while the DPS investigation is underway and the lobbyist remains unidentified. Slawson also urged colleagues to join her in wearing pink on the House floor Tuesday “to stand in support and solidarity with" the alleged victim.

Meanwhile, one of the heads of the prominent Austin lobbying firm HillCo Partners wrote in a Sunday email to state lawmakers that the group had hired outside legal counsel and “a respected former law enforcement official" to launch an internal investigation into the matter.

“If facts come to light that anyone associated with HillCo partners had any involvement with such conduct, that person will be immediately terminated," HillCo co-founder Buddy Jones wrote, adding that the firm would also cooperate with the DPS investigation.

“The reported incident is abhorrent and, once investigated and found to be accurate, should be dealt with in the strongest legal manner possible," Jones wrote.

Later Sunday, Bill Miller, the other HillCo co-founder, told the Tribune that the firm had been “tipped off" that one of its employees "is a person of interest" in the DPS investigation. Miller said the email was the firm's attempt to “put on the table what we're doing and why we're doing it."

Disclosure: HillCo Partners has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/04/25/texas-dps-drug-investigation/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Warren Buffett group lobbying Texas lawmakers to build $8 billion worth of power plants for emergency use

As the Texas Legislature debated how to respond to last month's winter storm-driven power crisis, executives at billionaire Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Energy were pitching lawmakers an idea: The group would spend over $8 billion to build 10 new natural gas power plants in the state. Lawmakers would agree to create a revenue stream to provide Berkshire a return on its investment through an additional charge on Texans' power bills.

Representatives for Berkshire Hathaway Energy have been in Austin meeting with lawmakers and state leaders for the past week and a half, according to a person working closely on the issue.

The proposed company, which would likely be known as the Texas Emergency Power Reserve, would build and maintain plants that sit idle during normal times, according to a slide deck obtained by The Texas Tribune. Whenever demand for power in the state threatened to surpass supply, these new plants would kick in to make up the difference, if ordered to do so by the state's grid operator.

“When you flip that switch and say, look, demand has exceeded supply, it has to come on in 10 minutes," Chris Brown, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Energy, said in an interview Thursday with the Tribune. “That's the Texas Emergency Power Reserve promise — that's the promise that we're making to the citizens of Texas."

In the presentation, the representatives estimated the cost of that new charge to consumers as $1.42 per month for residential customers, $9.61 for commercial customers and $58.94 for industrial customers. The pitch to state leaders also included a poll conducted by Republican pollster Mike Baselice suggesting that Texans would be broadly supportive of paying a little more on their power bills to increase reliability. The poll was conducted from March 17-21 among 800 likely voters in Texas, according to top lines of the poll obtained by the Tribune.

Over the past week, Berkshire Hathaway Energy, part of Buffett's multinational conglomerate company Berkshire Hathaway, has hired eight lobbyists in Austin at a cost of more than $300,000, according to records filed with the Texas Ethics Commission. One of those lobbyists is Allen Blakemore, a Houston political consultant who serves as a top strategist to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Blakemore did not respond to a request for comment.

Executives also met privately with key legislative leaders, including the lieutenant governor, who presides over the Senate, and new House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont.

A senior adviser for Patrick confirmed the lieutenant governor met with Berkshire Hathaway executives earlier this month. And a spokesperson for Phelan said the speaker met with the executives recently. A spokesperson for Gov. Greg Abbott, who has so far pushed for the weatherization of power generators as a legislative solution, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

If approved, the deal would signal a move away from decades of a competitive electricity market in Texas in which all power generators in Texas are paid for the energy they produce and sell, rather than the power they could potentially generate. Berkshire Hathaway Energy executives say their plan would not create a “capacity" market, but instead serve as highly regulated backup electricity generation.

The company says that building extra power generation in Texas would help ease fears of a repeat of the February power outages, during which more than 100 people died.

“We're not in favor at all of getting rid of [the deregulated market]," Brown said. “We think competition is to Texas' benefit. We're not dipping into the market at all."

Power grids must keep energy demand and supply in balance at every moment or risk uncontrolled blackouts. The February outages were ordered by the grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, in a move to prevent a bigger catastrophe that could have left most of the state without power for weeks.

Under Berkshire Hathaway's plan, ERCOT would control when the new power plants are activated to avoid the threat of such widespread power outages, and customers would pay a fixed fee only to cover the project's costs, while the price for energy supplied to the market would go to the state, not the company. It's a similar model to how transmission and distribution utility companies are regulated.

Brown said that while the company is not against the state's procurement process, it believes it's “uniquely suited" to carry out the idea because of its $8.3 billion investment and a commitment to have those 10 plants, totaling 10 gigawatts of additional generation capacity, operational by November 2023. Under its proposal, the company would also owe the state $4 billion if it did not have the plants online by then, Brown said.

“Certainly there's other entities out there that could potentially do it," he said. “That list is pretty short."

Texas deregulated its electricity market decades ago, theorizing that the price of electricity in the market — based on demand — would attract a sufficient amount of power supply. When demand for power is high, the price for power increases, and companies that can supply electricity to the grid make more money. The more cheaply a power plant can generate electricity, the higher the profit margin when it sells it in the wholesale market. Conversely, a plant that has been expensively weatherized to be able to operate in the extreme cold, or a plant that only operates on the few hottest days of the year, represents a big upfront investment for what may be little return in Texas.

Other regions of the country, including New England, tackle this potential mismatch by using government funds to subsidize the cost of plants that sit dormant for much of the year but turn on when demand is high. That's the type of plant Berkshire Hathaway Energy wants to build in Texas — but instead, grid operators would decide when the plants ramp up.

Since a deadline to file legislation at the Legislature has already passed, the proposal would likely get tacked onto existing legislation. It was unclear Thursday which bill the pitch could be added to if lawmakers decided to act on it, though the company said it was talking with lawmakers about multiple pieces of legislation and working toward getting a committee hearing on the proposal sometime next week.

Texas' competitive and deregulated market structure has come under criticism in the aftermath of the February power crisis. Power companies did not prepare plants to withstand severe winter weather, in part because companies build plants as cheaply as possible to maximize their profit margins. When the plants tripped offline during the winter storm, unprepared for the extreme cold, there wasn't enough power generation available to the grid. Power prices spiked, and the Public Utility Commission of Texas ordered ERCOT to set prices at the artificial cap — $9,000 per megawatt-hour — to signal to power companies that any and all power was desperately needed.

But energy experts have expressed doubt that merely having more power plants would have prevented the crisis. Electric generation tripped offline due to freezing temperatures and a shortage of natural gas, which fuels many plants in the state.

“We didn't have a shortage of power plants, we had a shortage of power plants that could work in the cold, and the gas to run them," said Dan Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University. “Texas has an enormous amount of natural gas plants already. It's not at all clear that there's a need to have more power plants built."

Berkshire Hathaway's presentation argues that adding power generation capacity would be more cost effective for the state than upgrading existing plants to withstand extreme weather. Brown, the CEO, said that the natural gas plants would be winterized and maintain seven days of natural gas storage on site to ensure they could operate during an emergency.

Lawmakers in recent weeks have quickly moved on legislation to address the February power crisis. Last week, the Texas House State Affairs Committee moved forward a bill that would mandate the weatherization of power plants, or mandate that power plants can function under extreme weather conditions. On Thursday, the Texas Senate Jurisprudence Committee advanced Senate Bill 3, a wide-ranging winter storm bill that also mandates winterization for power plants and the natural gas supply chain.

Another bill and a joint resolution filed in the House by Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, would aid power companies in funding those upgrades. But that legislation, as filed, includes language that would allow the low-cost loan program outlined in the bill to be used for building new power plants as well. It would direct the funds to prioritize projects that prepare facilities for cold weather, but it would also prioritize projects that provide excess power to the grid for periods of high demand — in other words, new power plants.

J.P. Urban, senior vice president and acting CEO of the Association of Electric Companies of Texas, a trade association of electric companies in the state, warned lawmakers earlier this week against subsidizing new power plants in their response to last month's outages.

“We believe the program should only focus on bolstering resiliency and existing facilities to avoid disruption in the competitive market," Urban said during a committee meeting Tuesday.

But lawmakers responded that they want more power generation on Texas' grid, not just for future storms, but generally for the growing state population.

“We're going to be a little bit more open to the types of investments that need to be made," said Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, responding to Urban. “We're going to need more power in Texas, period. Freeze or no freeze." The committee left the legislation pending on Tuesday, but witnesses and lawmakers indicated they would support the Huberty bill.

Even with the support of the Legislature's top leaders, the Berkshire Hathaway deal will need to win the approval of the rank-and-file members — a lesson Buffett learned in a past session. In 2017, after the billionaire met with Abbott and Patrick at the Capitol, the Senate used emergency powers to quickly craft legislation that became known as the “Buffett Bill," a special-interest carve-out allowing Buffett to be exempt from a state law that was barring people from owning both a vehicle manufacturing company and auto dealerships. The bill was effectively killed after Tea Party activists blasted it — and the attempt to fast-track it — as special treatment for a rich and powerful business owner.

Other lawmakers and officials have expressed doubts about letting Buffett and his companies play too big of a role in Texas.

Speaking at Texas Energy Day at the Capitol on Wednesday morning, Texas Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian, one of the state's oil and gas regulators, criticized President Joe Biden over his energy policies and, in doing so, swiped at “Warren Buffett's company." Christian said canceling oil and natural gas pipelines would put more trains on railroad tracks, and “Warren Buffett's company makes a lot of money from it."

Mitchell Ferman and Shawn Mulcahy contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Allen Blakemore, the Association of Electric Companies of Texas and Rice University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/03/25/warren-buffett-texas-power-plants/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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