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March 5, 2021      2:34 PM

People on the Move

Committee staff, a presidential appointment, other key appointments, and a retiring legend in the news business

I’m not even going to mention Speaker Dade Phelan said this past weekend that the electricity grid policy response may require more than one special session of the Legislature. Why bring that up on a Friday and dampen the mood?

Marathon hearings, resignations, firings, and emergency meetings have just scratched the surface of the crisis. We’ll see where it all goes – not that anything happened this week to change the subject from a brutal ice storm that left millions across Texas without power or water.

But Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement about masks and business restrictions did change the mood a bit at the Texas Capitol. Seems like suddenly more people are at least trying to walk the halls, talk with folks, and visit offices if it’s allowed. Will the House and Senate follow Abbott’s lead and lift restrictions in the building? Speaker Phelan hinted at that, but Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has not been as interested in talking about it.

Meantime, there are People on the Move to tell you about. If I missed your career news announcement or you would like the scoop to appear here, email anytime at ksbraddock@gmail.com and please use POTM in the subject line.

Here’s the latest edition:

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March 5, 2021      2:32 PM

Public Utility Commission declines to reverse $16 billion in ERCOT overcharges

The news via Austin American Statesman reporter Bob Sechler

Texas utility regulators have rejected a recommendation that they reverse about $16 billion in overcharges for wholesale electricity that were racked up during the massive failure of the state's utility grid last month because of a pricing error by the grid's operator.

“It's just nearly impossible to unscramble this sort of egg," Arthur D'Andrea, the new chair of the Public Utility Commission, said during a commission meeting Friday. Potomac Economics, a Virginia-based firm that's paid by the state to provide an arm's-length assessment of the Texas power grid, recommended Thursday in a letter to the commission that the overcharges — which were billed to retail electric providers, distributors and others — be reversed by retroactively lowering wholesale electricity prices over a 32-hour period beginning Feb. 18.

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March 4, 2021      6:52 PM

Updated: State leadership announces hold harmless for public schools extended through end of schoolyear

Reactions from education groups: Unimpressed. TSTA asked “What if there is a spike in COVID-19 cases after spring break or because of Gov. Abbott’s decision to end the mask mandate and relax other safety standards?”

Education groups had mixed reactions to Thursday’s announcement that the state has agreed to extend a “hold harmless” funding provision to school district budgets – as long as those districts are able to maintain or increase student attendance this school year.

The Texas Education Agency has been reticent to comment on the brewing school district funding debate for most of this pandemic-dominated school year. Answers from agency staff have been broad; thus, somewhat difficult to interpret.

Today, state leaders made it clear that school districts would maintain funding as long as those school districts could maintain or increase current enrollment.

Comments from teacher groups based on the “hold harmless” funding promise for this school year do raise concerns.

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By Kimberly Reeves

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March 4, 2021      5:00 PM

Speaker Phelan tells KXAN TV that COVID rules may be relaxed in the Texas House

Rules may be relaxed after Abbott’s announcement of reopening businesses; Phelan said “Those (rules) were adopted, and for those pandemic rules to change, we would have to have a vote on the House floor of all 149 members who vote on those.”

Here’s the KXAN TV report.

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March 4, 2021      2:14 PM

Independent market monitor says ERCOT made $16 billion error during storm, Bloomberg News reports

The newsflash from Bloomberg News:

A firm hired to monitor Texas’ power markets says the region’s grid manager overpriced electricity for almost two days during last month’s energy crisis, resulting in $16 billion in overcharges.

Amid the deep winter freeze that knocked nearly half of power generation offline, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, known as Ercot, set the price of electricity at the $9,000-a-megawatt-hour maximum -- standard practice during a grid emergency. But Ercot left that price in place days longer than necessary, resulting in massive overcharges, according to Potomac Economics, an independent market monitor hired by the state of Texas to assess Ercot’s performance. In an unusual move, the firm recommended in a letter to regulators that the pricing be corrected and that $16 billion in charges be reversed as a result.

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March 4, 2021      1:11 PM

Texas House Insurance talks anticipated losses from the ice storm

At least 150,000 claims were filed in the week following the storm, mostly homeowner claims; the industry says “To put that in perspective, when you go back and look at Harvey, there were 167,000 claims paid in that storm…So, in terms of claims, this may be as big as Hurricane Ike” in 2008

Early insurance industry estimates are pegging the destruction from the Texas winter ice storm at somewhere in the range of $9 billion to $10 billion.

The Texas House Insurance Committee touched on those numbers as it talked to a number of stakeholders about last month’s catastrophic storm. Albert Betts of the Insurance Council of Texas, the industry’s trade group, said it was obvious – in the days leading up to the storm – that this would an unparalleled weather event.

“The good thing for us -- as a state and as an industry and as a people – we are used to dealing with disasters. We know how to recover,” said Betts, a Dallas native. “The insurance industry has responded to a variety of storms in the state and stood ready to respond to this storm.”

So, it’s easy for Texans to talk about statewide storm damage – and storm claims – in terms of past events such as Hurricane Ike or Hurricane Harvey or Dallas hailstorms.

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By Kimberly Reeves

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March 3, 2021      8:51 PM

ERCOT CEO Bill Magness voted out by Board of Directors

Vote was 6-1-2. Lori Cobos of Office of Public Utility Counsel abstained, says she had concerns with the termination terms. Magness is turning down $800,000 severance that he'd be entitled to because the firing is without cause.

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March 3, 2021      4:03 PM

DSHS Commissioner Hellerstedt tells lawmakers he did not talk to Abbott directly before mask mandate announcement

But Hellerstedt assured lawmakers “the governor and I are on the same page. We share the idea that non-pharmaceutical interventions have not changed”

Governor Greg Abbott did not talk to Department of State Health Services Commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt before yesterday’s announcement he was ending the statewide mask mandate and allowing all businesses to operate at full capacity yesterday, Hellerstedt told the Texas House Public Health Committee today.

The answer came after questioning by Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood.

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By James Russell

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March 3, 2021      3:49 PM

PUC asks State Auditor to look into ERCOT market-clearing process, votes to claw back certain payments

“We can have a third party that is trusted by the legislature and this agency to go and figure out where the money went and make sure that if any money is owed to ratepayers, it’s back in their pockets,” new PUC Chair D’Andrea said

The Public Utility Commission cleared its agenda on Wednesday to take up a handful of smaller items related to ERCOT’s actions during the February ice storm.

Commissioner Arthur D’Andrea recognized the service of former Chair DeAnn Walker as he opened the meeting, calling her tireless in her work on the commission. Walker resigned this week after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and many others called for her resignation. He acknowledged the broad impact the recent ice storm had on the state.

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By Kimberly Reeves

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March 3, 2021      1:51 PM

Teachers and childcare workers in Texas now eligible for COVID vaccines

After the Biden Administration asked states to do this, DSHS said "all vaccine providers in Texas should immediately include these personnel in vaccination administration and outreach to ensure they are able to be immunized."

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March 2, 2021      6:33 PM

Updated: Statewide mask mandate ending as Gov. Abbott rescinds most of his COVID orders

Abbott says businesses can open at 100%, but county judges can implement some restrictions in areas where hospitalizations for COVID are stubbornly high; behind the scenes, DSHS tells hospitals, local governments, and others to remain vigilant about the use of masks and social distancing

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with various reactions and the full text of Abbott’s new EO. We’ve also reported out some of what state health officials were saying in private conference calls after Abbott made his announcement – SB

In a city not impacted by the failure of Texas’ power grid a couple weeks ago, Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday told Lubbock business leaders the statewide mask mandate is being lifted and other COVID-19 related restrictions will be rescinded next week.

"Too many Texans have been sidelined from employment opportunities" because of COVID restrictions, Gov. Abbott said. “This must end,” he said, drawing applause from Lubbock Chamber of Commerce members at an event at a Mexican restaurant.

Gov. Abbott said businesses of every type will now be able to open at 100 percent capacity starting next Wednesday. Of course, business owners can still limit their own capacity if they choose and can require masks in their establishments if they wish – not that that will cause any confusion. One prime example: Grocer HEB almost immediately announced the store chain would encourage, but not require, the use of masks by customers.

To add to the confusion, the Department of State Health Services in the afternoon was still telling local governments, hospitals, clinics, and others to stay vigilant by encouraging masks and social distancing.

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March 2, 2021      6:30 PM

Speaker Phelan reappoints Rep. Mary González to LBB, adds Rep. Armando Walle replacing Rep. Longoria

"Representatives González and Walle will make valuable additions to the Legislative Budget Board. They bring to the table years of experience in the budget process and will serve Texas proudly," Phelan said. Ex officio members: Phelan, Greg Bonnen, Morgan Meyer.

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March 2, 2021      6:20 PM

US Supreme Court seems ready to restrict use of the Voting Rights Act to challenge restrictions on voting

Case is argued as debates about new elections rules in Texas are set to get underway this session

Views are mixed on whether some Republicans have managed to make their case to the US Supreme Court today as they push to potentially scuttle Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

The cases heard today – Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee and Arizona Republican Party v. Democratic National Committee – are on track to directly impact the controls individual states have to restrict, or limit, voter access to the polls.

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By Kimberly Reeves

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March 1, 2021      5:18 PM

Financial fallout from energy crisis begins with bankruptcy filing from Brazos Electric Power Cooperative

Vistra and NRG CEOs told lawmakers last week they would not pass the $9000 per MW electric price on to their customers; now we’re starting to see that smaller providers don't have that bandwidth

The financial fallout of the 2021 winter storm has begun as the state’s largest generation and transmission co-op, Brazos Electric Power Cooperative, has filed for bankruptcy protection from a $2.1 billion bill due to ERCOT.

Last week, FitchRatings placed Texas’ public power utilities and electric cooperatives on Ratings Watch Negative, or RWN. Fitch raised concerns that spikes in natural gas prices erased liquidity in the market, with energy costs far outstripping cash reserves.

“These higher costs have triggered Fitch's concerns regarding funding requirements and liquidity in the near term, and cost recovery and the potential for increased financial leverage over the medium term for its rated issuers,” according to the ratings action.

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By Kimberly Reeves

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March 1, 2021      3:24 PM

PUC Chair Walker resigns

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March 1, 2021      11:59 AM

Lt. Gov. Patrick joins the chorus of those calling on the PUC Chair and ERCOT CEO to resign

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick issued a lengthy statement. Here it is.

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February 26, 2021      1:42 PM

People on the Move

Back inside the building for a big job, policy wonks, local government, comms pros, media moves, and more

Are y’all okay?

I’ve been trying to check in with as many of you as possible but here we are again with a crisis that’s touched just about everyone. The fact that the ice storm left so many in the dark, helpless for food and reliable water, was on full display during 15 hours of hearings Thursday. If you’re bleary eyed like I am – well, it really does feel like session now doesn’t it?

Given the nature of the storm, we hit pause on People on the Move last week. For those who may not know the drill: You can get your career moves in the news by sending the scoop anytime to ksbraddock@gmail.com. Career moves that I just happen to notice are also often included, so for some control over what is said here it is best to email me. Use POTM in the subject line for priority service. You are appreciated.

Here’s the latest edition of People on the Move:

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By Scott Braddock

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