The Conroe Lake Conroe Chamber of Commerce hosted a Montgomery County Day at the Capitol on March 2 at the Lone Star Convention Center in Conroe.

Due to the pandemic, the event included virtual speakers, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick; state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe; state Rep. Will Metcalf, R-Conroe; and Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts Glenn Hegar.

Here are three key takeaways from the event.

State budget better than predicted

Months before the 87th Texas Legislature convened Jan. 12, the state was anticipating a $5 billion-$6 billion shortfall, Creighton said. Now that number hovers at just over $1 billion, and officials are expressing optimism.

“I’m not as concerned about our budget as I was six months ago,” Patrick said.

Part of the reason is consumer spending during the pandemic and sales tax revenue were higher than anticipated, Hegar said.

“Last May and June, as people were spending more time in and around their home doing home improvement projects, they were buying workout equipment and doing outdoor activities, and so ... we had a positive sales tax month last July,” he said. “We didn’t expect to have a positive sales tax month for about a year.”

He added sales tax revenue was not as negative as anticipated, down on average of 5% instead of 10% month to month.

Reforming energy grid a priority in legislative session

There is usually one issue that dominates conversation in every legislative session, and this year it is efforts to reform the state’s electric grid, Patrick said.

The winter storm led to millions of Texans to lose power as temperatures dipped below freezing, and officials are calling for reform of the Energy Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s power system operator that covers 90% of Texas. Gov. Greg Abbott has called for an investigation of ERCOT, and hearings are underway in the Senate and the House.

Although most of Montgomery County is serviced by Entergy—which falls outside of the state grid and is managed by the Midcontinent Independent System Operation—Patrick said the scrutiny surrounding ERCOT still affects every Texan.

“What did happen in ERCOT impacts you whether you’re on the grid or not because it impacts 90% of Texas,” he said.

Although most of the scrutiny is focused on ERCOT, Metcalf said discussions with the other 10% of the state will continue.

“ERCOT is 90% of the state of Texas, so that’s why they’re the first in our committee hearings,” he said. “We will definitely be continuing [conversations with Entergy and MISO].”

Officials aim to expand internet access to rural areas

Abbott has prioritized broadband expansion as one of his five emergency items for the 2021 session, as addressed in his State of the State address Feb. 1. Broadband is an internet connection with sufficient speed.

Yet, census data indicates nearly 20% of Texas household do not have it, especially in rural areas, according to a news release from the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. The pandemic has pushed this issue to the front of the agenda.

Officials emphasized this need at the Montgomery County Day at the Capitol.

“We’re going to expand broadband access because [of] virtual schools; we need to make sure everyone has access and [for] telemedicine, which became big during COVID[-19],” Patrick said.

Mike Morath, commissioner for the Texas Education Agency, said from the education side, the commission hopes to accomplish this in a three-step approach: Securing as many devices as possible; identifying students who need to be served and then finding a solution to serving them; identifying areas where commercially available internet services are not available, and then finding a way to serve them.

There are several funding opportunities on the table, but the Legislature will ultimately have to establish the framework for the funding, he said.