The Texas House on Wednesday tentatively gave the state Public Utility Commission authority to issue emergency cease-and-desist orders — without first going to court — if a utility’s actions are threatening the state’s electricity supply, including during threats of rolling blackouts.
The issue proved contentious because of last-minute appeals by conservative organizations critical of “government overreach” and promising to use it in their political scorecards for next year’s elections.
“Government agencies simply shouldn’t be allowed to shut down businesses without the possibility for serious judicial review,” wrote Michael Quinn Sullivan, president of Empower Texans. “Chilling competition and unchecked intrusions on the marketplace by government agencies — regardless of the intentions — should be carefully checked.”
Texans for Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, joined in opposing the emergency cease-and-desist authority although proponents argued that no one in the electricity industry testified against it.
Despite those appeals, the House — by a vote of 86 to 60 — defeated an effort to strip out the provision from broader legislation that would continue the operations of the utilities commission.
At one point, it appeared the tide was running the other direction when state Rep. Byron Cook, the Corsicana Republican carrying the bill, said he was ready to accept an amendment eliminating that emergency provision.
Cook explained his last-minute reversal on conversations with utility commission officials who indicated they didn’t need the additional authority.
“I became comfortable that PUC has procedures to handle it,” Cook said.
But state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, and other proponents of the provision, argued that Cook was diluting the bill by deleting a protection for consumers. They suggested his reversal was due to lawmakers abandoning the provision because of outside influence.
The provision in House Bill 1600 would give the utilities commission the power to stop electric providers and others from taking actions that could threaten the state’s electric supply or harm individuals or businesses in emergency situations.
Opponents to the cease-and-desist authority argued that it isn’t necessary because the utilities commission can get a temporary restraining order from a judge, while proponents argued that the state agency must be able to act quickly to avert an emergency.
On another controversial issue, the House refused to require electricity utilities to pay for removing advanced meters — so-called smart meters — at the request of customers.
A small percentage of customers complain that they believe the meters compromise their health or their privacy. Although the House defeated the meter measure, the utility commission could address the issue as part of an ongoing study.
The House also amended the utilities commission legislation to require a cost benefit study before the agency can make any change in the electricity market that costs consumers more than $100 million.
Turner said he offered the amendment because the utilities commission has been increasing the cap on wholesale prices, trying to raise revenues for generators, without a cost benefit analysis.
The utility commission took the action after the threat of rolling blackouts during the summer of 2011 as a means to encourage investment in new power plants.
Cook, as the bill author, accepted the amendment without the need for a vote.