Legislative Update - Feb. 26, 2021

The ULLCO Sentinel

Weekly Labor Update on the 87th Texas Legislature

Feb. 26, 2021 — #8
94 Days to Go in Regular Session

“We have met the enemy and he is us.”

—From the comic strip “Pogo” by Walt Kelly, who coined the parody of Master Commandant Oliver Perry’s famous quote, “We have met the enemy and they are ours” for the original Earth Day in 1970. See that poster: http://bit.ly/2NYiALD

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Winter After-Storms — In the aftermath of a disastrous series of winter storms that shut down power and water in Texas, House and Senate committees bore down on state agencies and other players in the energy industry to figure out why the power grid for the so-called energy capital of the world failed. Areas of agreement: It was awful and must never happen again; while leadership was warned, effective communication to the public, especially ahead of the danger, was lacking; and Texas came within minutes of a “black start,” a reboot of the entire energy grid that might have left customers without power for months. The Chair of the Public Utility Commission came in for particular criticism for briefing state leaders but not focusing more on the public, plus she did not appear to understand that PUC has full jurisdiction over the Electrical Reliability Council of Texas (the usually obscure, now infamous grid operator).

On the Other Hand… — The fact-finding hearings offered no clear signals on looming legislation to ensure power grid stability in the future. Disagreements on the narrative surfaced: renewable energy (e.g., wind, solar) caught criticism from fossil fuel champions for not having to play by the same market rules that failed miserably; the ERCOT CEO said the agency followed its protocols correctly in calling for electric companies to shut off power but utility representatives said ERCOT dropped the ball on maintaining the grid; and some lawmakers were loath to discuss either how deregulation failed or the role of climate change.

Texas AFL-CIO Speaks Out — Before the hearings, the Texas AFL-CIO said the winter storm fiasco ultimately was a product of failed state. “Texas leadership failed working families before, during and after the winter storms,” Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy said. “The people government is supposed to serve suffered mightily and, in some cases, face a bleak future without further action.” Levy said the shortcomings were the product of years of neglect and rigid adherence to an ideology that deregulation would carry the state through crisis. 

Keeping Workers in Mind — Levy said pro-worker legislation to address the catastrophe needs to: focus on helping storm victims obtain food, water and expert repairs; accept responsibility and attack the root causes of the grid’s near-collapse; and recognize that deregulation and other hands-off policies leave the state vulnerable to crises. “How we ended up with a system devised by Enron, a symbol of disgrace we can’t seem to get past, is beyond us,” Levy said. See full statement: http://bit.ly/3pY5xqW

Paxton Out of State — The Dallas Morning News reported indicted Attorney General Ken Paxton was in Utah during the storms for several days to discuss an antitrust lawsuit against Google with the Beehive State’s Attorney General. Paxton’s office takes a lead in prosecuting cases of price gouging and consumer fraud, many of which were materializing during the winter blast: http://bit.ly/3qKatkd

Not a Labor Agenda — Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, arguably the most powerful player in the legislative process as presider over the Texas Senate, listed 31 priorities — each accompanied by a bill number — for the legislative session. The topics are likely to crowd out other priorities and, in some cases, stir major controversy. While some of Patrick’s preferred issues, such as expansion of broadband access, have ULLCO support already, many of the topics have traditionally drawn opposition or distance from labor. See the list: http://bit.ly/2NBSI8m

Fond Farewell — Montserrat Garibay, a superb labor activist, left her position as Secretary-Treasurer of the Texas AFL-CIO to take a labor liaison position in the Biden Administration’s Education Department. (http://bit.ly/37SjVL3) The Texas AFL-CIO wishes Sister Garibay the best.

Schedule — The Legislature again met only briefly this week, continuing a pandemic limit on floor sessions. That will change soon. The House returns 2 p.m. Tuesday and the Senate 3 p.m. Tuesday. The 60-day deadline for filing bills without having to gain permission in a floor vote falls on Friday, March 12. After that, the House and the Senate are past early-session restrictions on moving legislation through the process.

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The Basics

Do bill numbers matter?

Bill contents are always more important than bill numbers, but bill numbers can send key signals that indicate leadership support and convey a boost in the process. For example, HB 1 and SB 1 are traditionally the two-year appropriations bill — the only measure the Legislature is obligated to pass into law. In both the House and Senate, low-numbered bills are reserved at the start of the session for key topics blessed by each chamber’s leadership and are filled into the mix when they are ready.

How does that work in 2021?

In the House, Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, reserved the first 20 bill numbers for key legislation. In the Senate, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick reserved the first 31 bill numbers. Likewise, each chamber reserves a few low HJR and SJR numbers for leadership-backed constitutional amendments.

Can other bill numbers prove significant?

Yes. This year, for example, the Texas Senate reserved SB 700 through SB 719 for “sunset bills,” which under state law determine whether an agency will continue to exist. Such bills are considered major because they offer lawmakers an unusual opportunity to set law for agencies in the context of an omnibus bill that “must pass” (though agency lives can be and often are extended when sunset bills fail). This year, House filings have skipped some numbers, for reasons yet to be revealed.

Any lucky or unlucky numbers?

Sometimes. It has to be noted that this year’s HB 4, a major bill on telemedicine, is authored by Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo. That may or may not be coincidence, but lawmakers will occasionally search out a number that is relevant to legislation or otherwise memorable. On the flip side, floor debate in the Texas House of an HB 666 usually produces audible groans.

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ULLCO took no positions on bills during the abbreviated legislative week, but several bill introductions are worth noting:

HB 3 by Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, is the low-number pandemic disaster response bill. Among many provisions relating to who has power to do what, the measure specifically prohibits interference with a labor dispute (that is not already subject to laws protecting public safety).

HB 5 by Rep. Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin, is the low-number leadership edition of the broadband expansion bill. The Communications Workers of America are taking the lead for ULLCO on that subject.

HBs 2128, 2129 and 2130 by Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, would make improvements in the Unemployment Insurance system in Texas by, respectively, allowing alternative base periods that make eligibility more likely when employment is sporadic, raise payments for extended unemployment (of course, through no fault of the employee), and protection from being forced to take a job when an employer is not maintaining safety against infectious diseases.

On a parallel subject, HB 2273 by Rep. Mary González, D-El Paso, would preserve Unemployment Insurance eligibility for employees who leave their jobs because of sexual harassment.

HB 1980 by Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, would prohibit non-disclosure agreements with regard to sexual harassment. Other states have addressed the issue, but not Texas.

In filings that invoke disputes between the City of Austin and Gov. Greg Abbott, HJR 105 and HB 2289 by Rep. Mike Scofield, R-Katy, would create a D.C.-like state district with its own governance. The definition of the district is compact and does not include the Texas AFL-CIO building, though one border is on the other side of Lavaca St. outside the headquarters.