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The Brief: Top Texas News for Feb. 15, 2011

The state's electric grid operator will enter Senate hearings this morning with a Texas-sized target on its back.

An electrical substation in Comfort, TX.

THE BIG CONVERSATION:

The state's electric grid operator will enter Senate hearings this morning with a Texas-sized target on its back.

Lawmakers have called on state agencies and power companies to explain what exactly caused the rolling blackouts that left hundreds of thousands of Texans intermittently without power during an uncharacteristically harsh winter freeze two weeks ago.

Today, a joint Senate committee will hear from a number of witnesses, including representatives from the Railroad Commission and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. But lawmakers will likely home in on the agency that called for the blackouts and has since raised a number of questions about its operations: the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, which operates the state's electric grid.

Concerns over the agency's inability to predict and warn Texans of the blackouts have dominated discussions of the agency's performance. But as the Tribune's Kate Galbraith reports today, a number of other behind-the-scenes concerns, about transparency and bureaucracy within the agency, have since cropped up.

ERCOT, for instance, must wait 60 days before revealing which power plants failed in the cold weather. On Monday, state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, reintroduced a bill to reduce the confidentiality period — in place to keep competitors from capitalizing on malfunctioning plants — to two days. Transparency also plays into concerns over market manipulation, which some have alleged in light of price spikes that accompanied the blackouts.

Another concern: the agency's board, which a panel of commissioners have recommended cleaving off as an independent entity. Board salaries have also increased dramatically in recent years.

Watch for Kate Galbraith's coverage of the Senate hearings.

CULLED:

  • In the brewing dispute over Amazon.com's decision to withdraw operations from Texas in light of a sales-tax dispute, Comptroller Susan Combs got some help from an Austin Democrat on Monday. Aligning himself with Combs, who sent Amazon a bill last year for $269 million in past-due sales tax, state Rep. Elliott Naishtat filed a bill yesterday that would close loopholes allowing online retailers to operate without collecting sales tax. Naishtat said the bill would generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the state and that he'd be surprised if Gov. Rick Perry — who on Friday criticized Combs' stance — took issue with that.
  • Members of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus aren't too happy after state Rep. Raul Torres, R-Corpus Christi, called the nonpartisan caucus "often the Democratic Party's media outlet for Hispanic issues," says the San Antonio Express-News.
  • Here's a look at how Texas fares under the budget proposal unveiled Monday by the White House. In short, as the Houston Chronicle notes, it's a mixed bag.

"My colleagues love it." — State Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, on the bill he's filed that would require presidential candidates to show their birth certificates to appear on the Texas ballot. Berman told Politico his bill would pass easily in the House but likely stall in the Senate.

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