PUC sunset bill includes new powers for energy regulator

Legislation that continues the Public Utility Commission of Texas for the next 10 years has won House approval and awaits hearings in the Texas Senate.

The PUC regulates Texans' electricity and telephone service, and if the bill passes in its current form, the commission will soon oversee water rates as well.

The sunset bill, which won final House approval March 21 and was sent to the Senate on March 25, was the result of a routine review all state agencies must undergo every decade—a way for lawmakers to update, revamp and, if necessary, combine or eliminate agencies run by the state.

The ongoing existence of the PUC was not in question, but the agency's performance and function continue to gain relevance and merit review as Texas' population grows and demands on the state's power grid increase.

PUC's powers

The bill gives the PUC the new power to issue a "cease-and-desist" order with no judicial review to electric companies that are threatening either public safety or the stability of the power grid.

The legislation also requires the PUC to notify consumers of any proposed changes that would cost more than $100 million and affect rates or limit companies' abilities to use "smart meters" as well as the lifting of revolving-door restrictions that prohibit recently retired executives in the utility industry from serving on the commission.

An amendment by Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, to quash that cease-and-desist portion of the legislation failed in the Republican-led House, prompting an outcry from some conservatives.

"Bureaucracies shouldn't be able to run roughshod over the marketplace," wrote Michael Quinn Sullivan in his blog for Empower Texans, the conservative group he runs. "Government agencies simply shouldn't be allowed to shut down businesses without the possibility for serious judicial review."

The move also marked the first partisan line drawn in the sand between factions of the chamber's majority party, with Sullivan accusing the "gang of 33" Republicans who ultimately voted against the amendment of hijacking the party's values.

Conservatives were not the only ones who lost a fight or two during the debate.

Progressives were outraged at the failure of an amendment by Houston Democratic Rep. Hubert Vo that would require the PUC to notify customers of rate changes in advance of getting their new bills.

"I am deeply disappointed in the Legislature's behavior during the PUC reauthorization," Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, said. "How can we be so anti-consumer that we even rejected Representative Vo's no-brainer amendment to simply require utility companies to notify folks when they're changing their rates?"

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