Since last month’s winter weather disaster, Governor Greg Abbott has worked to blame the state’s electric grid operator directly, even though it is overseen by the Abbott-appointed Public Utilities Commission.
But as state lawmakers deepen their response to the crisis, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick is making it increasingly difficult to take his eyes off the commission, shedding light on the Abbott people and their decisions.
Last week, Patrick called for the resignation of the president of the PUC at the time, DeAnn Walker, and hours later, she left him. Then, after a regulatory body told the commission earlier this week that the Texas Electric Reliability Council had overcharged power providers by $ 16 billion during the storm, Patrick demanded that the PUC reduce costs retroactively, and Abbott considered it an emergency item for the legislative session. the next day.
The watchdog later revised its estimate of the surcharges to $ 4.2 billion, but that didn’t quell Patrick’s ire. The lieutenant governor’s focus on the PUC took its most dramatic turn until Thursday night when he appeared at a state Senate committee hearing to personally question Arthur D’Andrea, Abbott’s new appointed commission chairman, and the only member left.
Finally, Patrick ended the week with his most direct challenge to Abbott. In a statement Friday night, Patrick asked Abbott to “step in” and replace D’Andrea, challenging the governor to abandon his 9-day designee who previously worked as Abbott’s assistant general counsel.
Abbott quickly rejected Patrick.
Even before Patrick’s statement, Capitol watchers said they couldn’t recall anything like the Patrick-D’Andrea showdown in recent memory.
“It is very unusual, and I have never seen a lieutenant governor come and sit and participate in a hearing as if he were a senator, and also address someone that way in a public way, if he does not intend to do so. pressure him to resign, “said Sandie Haverlah, a lobbyist for nonprofits. “That clearly is an affront to the governor because D’Andrea serves by the governor’s will.”
When asked prior to Patrick’s statement on Friday whether Abbott continues to trust D’Andrea’s ability to chair the PUC, Abbott spokeswoman Renae Eze responded: “Absolutely.” And in a letter published after Patrick called for D’Andrea’s removal, Abbott told Patrick that it agreed with D’Andrea “about his inability to take the action he requested,” referring to the desired price correction.
Abbott has resisted blaming the PUC, which regulates the state’s electric, water and telecommunications utilities, since the storm’s early days, instead choosing to criticize the Texas Electric Reliability Council. When asked at a press conference on February 18 if he had any responsibility for the crisis, given his office’s relationship with the PUC, Abbott kept his focus on ERCOT, saying: “I am taking responsibility for the current state of ERCOT. “.
“This is not a word that I would normally use to describe Dan Patrick, but I think he was always a little more circumspect, particularly regarding ERCOT,” said Adrian Shelley, Texas director of consumer rights group Public Citizen. “Abbott was immediately out there taking low shots at ERCOT.”
Driving the dynamics is the source of growing speculation in Austin. There’s a political undertone: Patrick has never been able to completely shake off rumors that he is interested in the governor’s office, despite insisting that he will never run against Abbott and repeatedly saying he plans to run for a third term as lieutenant governor in 2022.
In the context of this session, it has been a notable resurgence for Patrick, who kept an unusually low profile in the first few weeks. That began to change in early February, when he scrambled to play the national anthem at professional sports games and prepared to publish a list of legislative priorities.
Then came the storm, leaving millions of Texans in the dark and cold, raising uncomfortable questions about the state’s power grid, and reversing the agenda on Capitol Hill.
Patrick said the crisis led him to put off posting his priorities for a few days so he could readjust them to reflect pressing issues. His list of 31 priorities ended up headed by “ERCOT reform” and “power grid stability”, in second and third place, respectively, just after the essential budget.
But things turned even more for Patrick after Walker and outgoing ERCOT CEO Bill Magness appeared before state House and Senate committees in late February. The lieutenant governor criticized their performances in a lengthy statement and asked them to resign, easily becoming the highest-ranking elected official to begin expanding the post-storm blame game to the PUC.
By the end of the day, Walker had submitted his resignation letter, effective immediately.
Abbott had already asked ERCOT leaders to resign, but had said nothing about the PUC. After Walker announced his resignation, Abbott’s office offered a statement thanking Walker “for his years of service to the state of Texas.”
Patrick further increased the pressure on the PUC on Monday, when he asked ERCOT and the commission to retroactively lower the market price of power during the week of the blackouts. The next day, Patrick received the endorsement of 28 of the 31 senators in the Legislature, who sent a letter to D’Andrea, whom Abbott had just appointed to replace Walker as president of the PUC, urging him “in the strongest terms possible to correct billing errors immediately. ” . “
D’Andrea and the PUC have refused to do so, citing unforeseen consequences of meddling in an electricity market that has already taken hold. D’Andrea was adamant on that point of view when Patrick interrogated him for nearly half an hour Thursday night, alleging that D’Andrea had told him otherwise in a recent phone call.
In his statement Friday night, Patrick asked Abbott to “replace Mr. D’Andrea at PUC when he fills the other two vacancies there.”
“Sir. D’Andrea’s position requires both professional competence and honesty, and yesterday he demonstrated little of both in the hearings,” Patrick said. “I think most Texans who saw the Senate Case Law hearing would conclude that D ‘ Andrea should not have full authority over ERCOT or be part of the solution in the future. ”
Less than an hour after Patrick’s statement, Abbott’s office delivered the letter to the lieutenant governor. In the letter, Abbott invoked his past experience as a state Supreme Court justice and attorney general to back D’Andrea, telling Patrick that the governor “has no independent authority to achieve the goals you seek.”
“The only entity that can authorize the solution you want is the legislature itself,” Abbott wrote. “That is why I made this issue an emergency issue for the legislature to consider in this session.”
Not all senators are with Patrick, at least when it comes to the price correction. The three senators who did not sign the letter were Senators Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe; Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin; and Kelly Hancock, Republican of North Richland Hills. Hancock told The Dallas Morning News that he wanted to remain neutral in the debate because he chairs the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce, which has held House hearings after the storm.
Creighton’s office did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
Meanwhile, House lawmakers have taken what they see as a more deliberative approach, with some pledging to “get all the facts” before taking action on the issue.
During a House State Affairs Committee hearing Thursday, State Rep. Chris Paddie, a Marshall Republican who chairs the committee, appeared to criticize the 28-member Senate letter asking D’Andrea to overturn the charges. .
“Before we take a position or any of us individually send you, sir, a letter or anything else,” Paddie told D’Andrea, “I’m going to be very safe when I sign my name on something that I have all of us. the facts, and keep it accurate. “
After the hearing, House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said in a statement that he appreciated the committee for its “deliberative examination” of the issue and said he expected another hearing next week on the conversation.
And for the past week, Phelan floated the idea of legislation that would create a loan fund by drawing money from the state savings account, also known as the emergency fund. That new fund could help electricity and natural gas producers strengthen facilities against future cold weather events.
The proposal, introduced Friday by State Representative Dan Huberty, R-Houston, is modeled after the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas, known as SWIFT, which has helped fuel the construction of tens of billions of dollars in new water projects in recent years. .
Meanwhile, it seems inevitable that the heat in the PUC will not recede, despite Abbott’s early efforts to protect its designees from the consequences of the storm.
“I think it would be difficult to reach another conclusion,” said Doug Lewin, a climate and energy consultant. Clearly, Abbott jumped in to say it was [ERCOT], and I think … Patrick has been drumming that it’s ERCOT and the PUC and he’s really putting emphasis on the PUC.
Cassi Pollock contributed reporting.