House Passes Public Utility Commission Sunset Bill

A sunset bill that continues the operations of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, which regulates the electric and telephone industries, won approval Wednesday from the House, though the legislation would adjust how the commission works.

House Bill 1600, authored by state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, would transfer authority over water rate regulation from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to the PUC. And it would place constraints on power companies’ abilities to distribute information gained from their customers’ smart meters. It also gave “cease and desist” orders to the PUC, which could take action against power companies in the event of a threat to electric service or public safety.

The measure now moves to the Senate.

An amendment to the measure offered by Cook would allow the three PUC commissioners — who are appointed by the governor — to have held stakes of up to 10 percent of a public utility regulated by the commission (or a competitor to utilities regulated by the commission) in the two years prior to appointment. That would enable recently retired utility executives to serve on the commission.

The PUC currently has one vacancy, following the recent resignation of Rolando Pablos.

An amendment by state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, which consumer advocates championed, was successful. The PUC will have to do cost-benefit studies when it proposes changes that would have more than a $100 million dollar impact to consumers’ energy costs. The PUC has been criticized by consumer groups for making little effort to understand the impact of higher wholesale price caps that it adopted last year in an effort to incentivize power companies to keep the lights on.

“Would anyone with an MBA not do a cost-benefit analysis on a project costing more than $100 million?” asked state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, who supported Turner’s effort. 

Providing the PUC the authority to issue “cease and desist” orders was the subject of debate in the House.

Such orders “are viewed as a best practice among state agencies that have to protect the public,” said state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas.

Opponents of the “cease and desist” orders argued that the PUC already had adequate authority to protect residents, by going to a judge. State Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said that the orders would “allow three bureaucrats to make a decision as opposed to an elected judge that has time and is independent.”

But the proponents of the “cease and desist” orders prevailed. 

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