AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The Texas Senate has passed a bill to require the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUC) to order a “correction of prices” of power sold during the hours after the winter storm.
Senate Bill 2142 was filed, read, referred to committee, voted out of committee, read a second time on the Senate floor, debated, passed to engrossment and finally passed all on Monday due to legislative calendar manipulation.
“There is a compelling public interest in correcting the prices of wholesale power and ancillary services sold in the ERCOT market during the period beginning 11:55 p.m., February 17, 2021, and ending 9 a.m., February 19, 2021,” the language of the bill states.
An independent market monitor reported the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) and the PUC did not correctly adjust energy prices in the hours after the storm, resulting in $16 billion in overcharges.
The bill’s author, State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, said during Monday’s committee hearing the “errors resulted in inaccurate and excessive charges,” noting “everyone is expecting something to be done.”
The panel voted 3-1 to move it to the full Senate, where it was ultimately approved 27-3 (one absent).
State Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, said he wanted to “make sure the PUC follows through with that’s in statute.” He asked Hughes how quickly compliance with the new law would take, and Hughes said PUC would be directed to take action “right away.” Hughes added the PUC would be directed to take action no later than March 20.
“We have to do something,” State Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, said during the bill debate.
State Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, said lawmakers “shouldn’t have to be doing this,” but if the legislature did not act, “the real losers are going to be our citizens,” who will “eventually pay for this one way or the other.”
State Sen. Kelly Hancock, R- North Richland Hills, was one of the three “no” votes.
“There are right ways and wrong ways to address the financial fallout of the winter storm and protect consumers from sky-high bills; I believe SB 2142 is the wrong way,” he wrote in a statement.
Hancock believes the measure goes against the provision in Texas Constitution preventing an impairing of the obligation of contracts.
State Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, also voted no.
“There are two sides of this equation – the electricity side and the natural gas side,” she said in a four-paragraph statement. “I worry that retroactively altering the price of electricity without making any alterations on the natural gas side of the equation runs a high risk of hurting good actors and bailing out irresponsible ones.”
“This could be the most significant piece of legislation passed this session in terms of the effect it has on a critical Texas industry, but we still don’t have a firm understanding of the implications and potential unintended, long-term consequences this action could have on Texas’ energy market,” she said.
After the bill passed out of the Senate, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick thanked the lawmakers for “this extraordinary day.” He said last week he spoke with the governor and relayed that passing a bill urgently addressing the billing situation may be difficult, but then the Senate quickly had hearings and crafted a bill to tackle this.
“We believe this bill rights this mistake, which was clearly a mistake,” Patrick explained in a Monday afternoon press conference.
Patrick said the state’s financial leaders would work on a plan to help affected consumers after the price change.
“We’re gonna step up and help these ratepayers at some level, and we’re not gonna let it wipe them out,” he said, noting “it’s going to take some time for us to work through this, we have to see what the real numbers are.”
His message to Texans worried they would end up in the hole after the proposed price fix was “don’t panic.”
“I know there are companies right now that are already sending out notice to their some of their clients, we’re gonna add so much a month to your bill for the next five years, 10 years, 20 years,” Patrick said. “We’re going to look at all of that. So give us time to work through this. This is complex and complicated.”
“The Senate has acted,” Patrick said Monday. He hoped Gov. Greg Abbott would publicly share he would sign the bill — a possible push to help it move through the House. It needs to be voted out by the House to go to the governor’s desk.
A spokesperson for House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont said the lower chamber’s State Affairs committee was slated to hear testimony on Tuesday related to repricing and market effects.
Phelan issued a statement Monday afternoon once the House received the bill.
“The House recently received SB 2142, the Senate’s repricing bill,” Phelan stated. “There has been conflicting testimony throughout this process about the costs associated with repricing, and there must be additional review on this consequential issue. Tomorrow, the House State Affairs committee will hear continued testimony about the impacts of electric repricing. The House’s work continues.”
Abbott made correcting post-storm billing errors an emergency item for lawmakers this session.
“These are very complex issues,” Abbott said in Houston Monday morning when asked about the legality of retroactively changing energy prices. “That’s exactly why the legislature is the right body to investigate this, to weed through all these complexities, and to make sure that if legislation is passed, it will satisfy the requirements of the Texas constitution.”
When asked about any updated statement once the bill passed the Senate, an Abbott spokesperson pointed back to his press conference comments.
Photojournalist Frank Martinez contributed to this report.