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As Special Session Nears, Some Hope Ratepayer Relief Will Be On The Table

Electrical lines near Red Bud Isle in Austin on June 25.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Electrical lines near Red Bud Isle in Austin on June 25.

Carolyn Rivera has lived in her East Houston neighborhood for 40 years. The 77-year-old retired school teacher has held out against hurricanes and heat waves, but nothing like last February when her power went out for over four days.

“It was so cold in here ... my bed was like a block of ice,” she remembered months later.

Like most of her neighbors, she said, the pipes in her house froze and burst. That included the sewage system.

“Imagine being in your home without being able to even use the bathroom properly,” she said. “That was horrifying.”

But it was just the start of her struggles. After the power was restored, she had to deal with the costs.

Repairing her plumbing was over $3,000, she said. Like many of her neighbors, Rivera is on a fixed income and doesn’t have a lot of money. The unexpected expense is something she’s still struggling with.

“I turned my air way up to like 83, because of the fear of getting an electric bill that I'm not able to pay,” she said.

After the crisis, state lawmakers passed a handful of reforms aimed at preventing another blackout. Those include winterizing power plants, creating a grid emergency alert system and cracking down on certain risky retail electric plans.

Gov. Greg Abbott has touted those accomplishments, saying that “everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas.”

But many disagree. Energy experts say major market reforms are needed to make the grid more reliable — something lawmakers did not accomplish in the spring. And consumer advocates argue that providing direct financial relief to ratepayers like Rivera is another piece of unfinished business.

Both groups are calling on lawmakers to pass legislation addressing those two issues during the upcoming special session, which will start on July 8. Both initiatives would have to be approved by Abbott first to make it into the agenda.

Consumer advocates say Texas lawmakers should approve direct ratepayer relief since they've already passed multi-billion dollar bailouts for large utilities that suffered in the February storm.

As it stands, consumers won't benefit from those bailouts — in fact, those laws will mean higher electricity bills for ratepayers well into the future, consumer groups say. Under the bailouts, some electric companies and gas utilities will be able to pay down their blackout-related debt by increasing utility bills a few bucks a month for decades to come.

“It really is, you know, a 'heads we win, tails you lose' proposition for the electric companies," said Tim Morstad, who works on utility issues for the Texas AARP. “The ratepayers are really left holding the bag on this one.”

Defenders of the bailout programs say they’ll reduce the pain of higher bills by spreading it out over time.

“That was the charge we had,” said state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, when the bailout bill was signed into law. “We wanted to take care of consumers to make sure we had a reliable, affordable [system] that would maintain an integrity for our economy to continue to grow at the record pace that it's grown for years to come.”

But critics say direct assistance would do that better. Morstad also worries that further corporate bailouts may continue to be framed as ratepayer assistance.

“When the legislature comes back, they do need to take a look at what kind of relief can be given to actual ratepayers. Not their companies, but the actual ratepayers,” he said.

With heat baring down already and hurricane season here, Carolyn Rivera said many Texans will need all the help they can get just to stay safe in their homes.

If lawmakers do take up the issue in the special session, she said she will be there advocating for ratepayer relief.

Copyright 2021 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.