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Texas legislature wraps up for now — but will be restarting soon for special session

The Texas Legislature closed out its regular 140-day session Monday with sniping among the state's top political leaders and lawmakers already well aware they will be back this calendar year for an overtime round.

"We will be back — when, I don't know, but we will be back," House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, told members from the speaker's dais. "There's a lot of work to be done, but I look forward to doing it with every single one of you."

Talk of a special session — and questions about how soon one may happen or what additional issues Gov. Greg Abbott could task legislators with — has largely defined the last weekend of the Legislature's 140-day stretch after lawmakers left unfinished a number of GOP priorities and tensions between the two chambers escalated.

That drama reached new highs Sunday night when House Democrats staged a walk out and broke quorum, making it impossible to give final approval Senate Bill 7, a massive GOP priority voting bill that would tighten the state's election laws, before the midnight deadline.

Abbott quickly made clear that the bill, along with another other priority legislation that would have made it harder for people arrested to bond out of jail without cash, "STILL must pass" — and said that the two issues "will be added to the special session agenda."

The governor, who is the only official who holds the power to convene a special session, has not yet specified whether he plans to order one ahead of an overtime round already planned for the fall to handle the redrawing of the state's political maps. An Abbott spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment earlier Monday.

Before lawmakers adjourned though, Abbott made clear he intends to reprimand the Legislature over its unfinished business by vetoing the section of the state budget that funds the legislative branch.

"No pay for those who abandon their responsibilities," he tweeted. "Stay tuned."

Shortly after lawmakers adjourned for the final time, Abbott released a lengthier statement in which he applauded the Legislature for pushing through a series of conservative victories, while doubling down on his demands that lawmakers pass voting and bail legislation. But the governor also left open the possibility that other topics could be added to the agenda for the special session.

House Democrats earlier this week successfully killed proposals that would've banned local governments from using taxpayer dollars to pay lobbyists, prohibited social media companies from blocking users because of their viewpoints and barred transgender students from playing on sports teams based on their gender identity. Abbott had previously said he would sign those bills.

"I expect legislators to have worked out their differences prior to arriving back at the Capitol so that they can hit the ground running to pass legislation related to these emergency items and other priority legislation," he said.

Aside from handling last-minute, typical end-of-session to-dos — such as correcting technical errors in already-passed legislation and recognizing Capitol staff — House members were busy Monday taking photos with one another and with family members who were in town. Members, led by state Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, also applauded Phelan over his first term as speaker.

"We always go through ups and downs — that's the nature of the Legislature — but what we're really here to tell you is: You did a great job," Hunter told Phelan from the chamber's back microphone. "Thanks for standing up for the Texas House."

Even before Sunday night's Democratic walkout, tension had been high in the Capitol.

Frustrated that the Senate had not moved fast enough on House leadership's priorities, the House recessed for several days of the session's home stretch. Later, three of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick missed a key deadline in the House, leading Patrick to call for an immediate special session this summer. When the voting bill failed Sunday night, Patrick pointed the finger squarely at Phelan, saying "clock ran out on the House because it was managed poorly."

Mentions of an imminent special session were sprinkled into conversations throughout Monday in the House. Before Hunter asked the chamber to applaud Phelan, the lawmaker asked whether it was the last day of the regular session — and added that he had heard "we may be getting a coastal breeze in the fall."

Phelan during his speech also alluded to the special session, telling members that while he hoped that the Legislature would not return until the fall, the decision was not his.

"Let's just have a restful, peaceful summer and hopefully be back here in the fall," Phelan said. "But that's not my decision, that's someone else's decision."

Phelan also emphasized abiding by legislative rules, an apparent dig at Patrick and the Senate, which moved in the early hours of Sunday morning to suspend its rules and jam through a series of last-minute additions to the expansive voting bill.

"No matter the external forces that tried to distract us or diminish the work of this body, we are the Texas House," Phelan said. "In this House, we work hard — and our rules matter. Our rules matter."

Meanwhile, across the Capitol, senators slowly filled the chamber Monday morning — many with family members in tow — as they exchanged cordial handshakes and friendly smiles. Clusters of bipartisan conversation presented a stark contrast to the late-night partisanship that largely defined a strange legislative session.

The first order of business as Patrick gaveled in the final regular session meeting of the upper chamber was the election of the body's president pro tempore during the interim — a largely ceremonial role reserved for the longest-serving senator who has not previously served in such a capacity. This year, that honor fell to state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels.

Members, each wearing a yellow rose in homage to Campbell, took turns commending her heart, her perseverance and her faith. "Many people consider her an iron first in a velvet glove, perhaps because of her firmness and her brevity," said state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo.

Campbell was flanked by her four daughters as she addressed her colleagues from the dais, the events from a tumultuous session seemingly weighing on her mind.

"We are chosen leaders of this great state of Texas at a time of great challenges," she said. "We came into our position, our position of leadership, for a time such as this."

After approving a series of memorial resolutions and technical changes to bills, the Senate prepared to gavel out for the final time this regular session. A hint at unfinished business rang out in Patrick's closing remarks.

"I normally say I'll see you in 18 months, but I might see you in 18 days or so," he said.

The trouble with Texas

The 2021 Texas legislative session is heading into its final weekend fraught with uncertainty and tension between the two chambers that could lead to a special session.

After three of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's priorities effectively died Tuesday night in the House, the Senate presiding officer called for a special session to pass them, jolting the final several days of a session that was already on track to be the most conservative in recent memory. The last day of the session is Monday, and procedural deadlines have been increasingly cutting off opportunities to hash out key issues.

In some ways, it is a familiar story from past sessions: Tensions between the two chambers are peaking, and Patrick is putting pressure on Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special session for unfinished business on conservative priorities. Patrick got his way in 2017, forcing a special session in an ultimately failed push to pass legislation to regulate bathroom use by transgender people.

Patrick specifically wants a June special session — prior to the special session that Abbott is widely expected to call this fall to address redistricting and COVID-19 relief funds. Abbott indicated Wednesday he was not immediately on board with Patrick's demand, and he put a finer point on his resistance Thursday afternoon during an unrelated news conference in Fort Worth.

“That's pretty goofy because everybody knows there's only one person with the authority to call a special session, and that's the governor," Abbott said of Patrick's push for a special session, adding that those agitating for a special session should be careful what they wish for.

During special sessions, lawmakers are only allowed to consider legislation on subjects selected by the governor. Abbott said that if he initiates a special session, he would not load up the agenda with multiple items for lawmakers to address at once but would “go one item at a time."

“So if anyone tries to hold hostage this legislative session to force a special session," Abbott said, “that person will be putting their members, in the Senate or the House, potentially into a special session for another two years because I'm gonna make sure that we get things passed, not just open up some debating society."

Patrick appeared caught off-guard by Abbott's “goofy" comment later Thursday, asking a TV interviewer multiple times if the governor had really said it. Patrick went on to say it was “not goofy" to request a special session, arguing it was the only option left to him at this point in the session, despite Abbott's insistence that there is still time to salvage the three items.

Also in TV interviews Thursday afternoon, Patrick denied that the Senate was purposely sitting on legislation to trigger a special session. Speculation ramped up around that possibility overnight when the Senate missed a deadline to consider a seemingly must-pass bill to extend the life of state agencies.

“I support the governor but I'm pointing out that, and clearly he's the person that can call it, only person, but I have a right and so does everyone else to ask him to call it and that's what I'm doing," Patrick told Spectrum News in Austin. “And there was a reference about holding hostage, I'm not holding anything hostage."

At the Fort Worth news conference, Abbott insisted he “strongly" supports the three incomplete priorities that prompted Patrick's call for a special session: Punishing social media companies for "censoring" Texans based on their political viewpoints, outlawing transgender students from playing on sports teams based on their gender identity and banning taxpayer-funded lobbying. The issues cap a session that has already seen a slew of long-sought wins for conservative activists, including permitless carry of handguns and a “heartbeat" bill that could ban abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.

Despite the high-stakes staredown with Patrick, Abbott downplayed any perceived disunity among the state's leaders, saying the back and forth was to be expected in the final days of a session.

“If the leaders in the Legislature will stop fighting with each other and start working together," Abbott said in Fort Worth, “we can get all of this across the finish line."

Abbott and Patrick traded comments as lawmakers Thursday afternoon sent Abbott a roughly $248 billion spending plan for the state for the next two years, which is the only legislation constitutionally required to pass during a regular session.

But the comments between the two also came after tensions had been simmering inside each chamber for days. Last Thursday, the House stopped work for the week out of frustration that the Senate wasn't passing enough of its priority bills.

Patrick hardly concealed his disdain for the House in remarks to the senators from the dais on Wednesday night, speaking hours after his special session demand.

"As you all know, the House was not here Friday," Patrick said. “The House was not here Saturday. The House has already quit for today. So we're working hard, we're passing bills— they weren't here for two days in the last five. They're gone now. They killed key bills of yours last night, because they weren't here."

The Senate ended up working hours past midnight Wednesday.

As the senators worked, House Speaker Dade Phelan attempted to enter the chamber to watch proceedings but was denied entry because he did not have a wristband proving he had tested negative for the coronavirus, as Quorum Report first reported. Members, staff and the general public have been required to have a negative COVID-19 test before entering the chamber floor or gallery as part of the Senate's pandemic protocols that have been in place throughout session.

Phelan “ is always welcome in the TxSenate and was not denied entry [tonight]," the lieutenant governor's office tweeted early Thursday morning. “Messengers offered to get him a wristband, but the Speaker declined and left."

In a jab at the Senate later that morning, Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican and top lieutenant of the speaker, rattled off statistics comparing the number of House bills and Senate bills the two chambers have taken action on in a series of questions from the chamber's back microphone.

Is it true, Burrows asked Phelan, that “less than 50% of the House bills that we sent over were passed by the Senate, are you aware of that?"

“The chair is not advised," the speaker replied.

“By comparison," Burrows said, “of those bills considered and passed, is it true that we passed 75% of the Senate bills sent over to us?"

“75% is a lot of Senate bills and sounds accurate, Mr. Burrows," Phelan said.

Burrows' line of questioning seemed to reflect the frustration felt by some House members such as Rep. James White, a Hillister Republican, who told the Tribune on Thursday that the Senate had not yet acted on three of his legislative priorities for the session.

White, who chairs the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, said his committee “did not delay one damn Senate bill" this session.

“Tension is good sometimes," White said. “We're all working hard, and I'm proud of the work my committee did."

Other House members were not afraid to take shots at the Senate on Thursday, including Rep. Lyle Larson, a San Antonio Republican.

“The GOP senate bashing the GOP house last night for not working late," Larson tweeted, referring to Patrick's comments made in the Senate the night before. “DP Ego .. ugh."

House Democrats had been most focused on killing Senate Bill 29, which would require transgender student athletes to play on sports teams based on their sex assigned at birth instead of their gender identity. Waving blue and pink transgender pride flags, Democrats celebrated when the midnight deadline to pass the bill came before a vote had been held.

In a radio interview the next morning, one Senate Republican vowed that the issue of transgender student athletes would remain front and center.

“It's not going away," Sen. Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills said, speaking minutes before Patrick issued his call for a special session. “You can delay this, but this is not going away."

Abbott has not been outspoken about bills targeting transgender youth this session, though he said during a Fox News appearance last month that he would sign a bill like SB 29.

Like in 2017, Abbott again finds himself facing intraparty pressure to call a special session ahead of a reelection year. This time, though, Abbott is facing more opposition from his right: He has already drawn a primary challenger in former state Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas, and Texas GOP Chairman Allen West and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller have not ruled out bids against Abbott.

Huffines said Wednesday he backed “calls for an imminent special session," while West voiced support for a special session as long as it addresses the state party's legislative priorities. One of those priorities is abolishing taxpayer-funded lobbying.

Miller, meanwhile, said in an email to supporters Wednesday that a special session to pass Patrick's three unfinished priorities “now looks likely."

Reese Oxner contributed reporting.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/05/27/texas-legislature-special-session/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

A false date rape drugging accusation against a lobbyist exposed claims of his role in the Texas Capitol’s culture of sexual harassment

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Editor's note: This story contains explicit language.

Although it had not been officially released, the investigative report began ricocheting around computers and cellphones at the Texas Capitol early Tuesday evening, and it made one thing unambiguously clear: Rick Dennis, a lobbyist with one of Austin's most prominent firms, was not guilty of using a date rape drug on two female legislative staffers during a night out in Austin.

Rumors that Dennis had been accused of doing so rocked the Capitol in late April, prompting outraged reactions from legislative leaders and state lawmakers. But a Texas Department of Public Safety investigation found the allegation baseless. Authorities soon after said they would not seek charges.

The DPS report, a copy of which was obtained by The Texas Tribune, concluded that the false allegation was fueled by two female legislative staffers, one of whom was trying to cover up behavior of her own that had nothing to do with Dennis.

Still, the incident laid bare larger questions about a Capitol culture that many female staffers say often leads to allegations of misconduct and harassment being brushed under the rug by those with the power to act.

Dennis has faced multiple accusations of inappropriate behavior with women as both a legislative staffer and lobbyist — and in at least two instances has been banned from visiting certain Capitol offices because of them, according to current and former staffers and documentation reviewed by the Tribune.

Those past allegations include offering graphic descriptions of sex acts inside a House member's office, openly speculating about the sex lives of female and male employees, and creating "an office contest" in which Dennis demanded that he, as winner, would be able to "shoot white yogurt" onto the face of the loser, a female subordinate.

Those complaints, though, appeared to have little effect on his stature at the Capitol.

Dennis, through his attorneys, largely denied previous allegations to the Tribune. He did express regret about his time in state Rep. Tan Parker's office during the 2015 legislative session, which he characterized as a stretch that "had too much of a locker room environment."

Dennis' history does not include accusations involving physical behavior or sexual violence, according to current and former staffers interviewed for this story. But his reputation for inappropriate comments, in part, explains why the date rape drug allegation took hold fiercely when it surfaced.

While lawmakers appropriately expressed outrage over fears that a staffer had been drugged, Capitol workers say, they're bothered that years of documented complaints about sexual harassment didn't meet the same threshold for those in power.

The latest incident has sent a message about what isn't acceptable in the culture of state government. And what apparently is.

The false allegation

In the early evening of April 1, the two female legislative staffers joined a group of lobbyists for drinks at the Austin Club, a nearby haunt frequented by the Capitol crowd. According to the DPS report, the two women had recently received the coronavirus vaccine.

After a short time there, one of the women began to feel ill and left soon after. Her condition prompted a trip hours later to the emergency room, where the report says she was treated for dehydration, stomach pain and nausea. The second woman, meanwhile, had stayed with the group, and later left with another Capitol staffer she was romantically involved with, the report says.

In text messages later shared with the investigator, the second woman told her boyfriend and her co-worker's mother that she had tested positive for the date rape drug GHB at a medical clinic the next morning.

Her co-worker soon after contacted DPS and raised the possibility that someone had put GHB in their drinks while at the Austin Club. DPS opened an investigation and briefed certain state leaders and lawmakers about the allegation, as first reported by the Austin American-Statesman.

Although he was not named publicly, word spread quickly through Capitol circles that Dennis, a lobbyist employed by HillCo who had been at the Austin Club gathering, was a target of the investigation.

But the accusation fell apart under investigation. The second woman had not been tested for GHB, the investigator found. According to his report, he found inconsistencies in her story and "observed [her] to be very deceptive" during an interview.

Throughout that interview, the investigator noted, she "attempted to sell … the reputation of Richard Dennis rather than articulate facts as to why Dennis or any other lobbyist or person at the table would have placed an adulterant" into the two staffers' drinks. Her story, according to the report, "contradicted most if not all facts" that the investigator had learned.

The other staffer, meanwhile, also made references to Dennis not having "a great reputation" in interviews with the investigator, the report says.

The staffer began to cry, the report says, when the investigator told her about the second staffer's inconsistencies and asked her if she thought Dennis could have drugged the two aides.

"I don't," she said, according to the report. "I don't think I would've filed anything if I would've known from the beginning it wasn't what I thought it was."

The second woman, the investigator concluded, had manufactured the date rape drug story in an effort to conceal from her boyfriend the fact that she had gone home that night with another man. The ill effects both women felt may have been a result of drinking alcohol after receiving the coronavirus vaccine, the report said.

After authorities announced no crime had occurred, Dennis' lawyers, David and Perry Minton, called the allegation "a devious plan to frame our client by an unscrupulous individual or individuals to cover up their own indiscretions." And Buddy Jones, co-founder of HillCo Partners, said in an email to state lawmakers that "unfortunately, the lives of innocent people were adversely affected, most especially Rick Dennis."

The Capitol machine had already expressed outrage over the allegation, though. Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, delivered a speech on the House floor, saying he was "disgusted that this sort of predatory behavior is still taking place in and around our Capitol." A number of lawmakers and lobbyists wore pink one day "to stand in support and solidarity with" the alleged victim. Several House members declared their offices off limits to the accused lobbyist or the lobby firm. And most of the House's female members signed on to an open letter that said they hoped "sends a clear message that we will not tolerate sexual harassment or abuse."

In a statement for this story, Bill Miller, the other HillCo co-founder, said the firm would not discuss Dennis "or any other employees of our firm." He also said the allegation was "perpetrated by unscrupulous people for nefarious reasons to frame an innocent party."

"An unbearably hostile work environment"

The atmosphere at the Texas Capitol has been well-documented in recent years. In 2017, the Daily Beast reported accounts of sexual harassment and misconduct in and around the Capitol and included allegations made against a number of current and former state lawmakers such as state Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston. A spokesperson for Miles at the time called the allegations "unfounded and implausible."

Later, reporting by the Tribune and interviews with more than two dozen current and former lawmakers and staffers revealed that sexual harassment regularly goes unchecked at the Capitol — and that policies in the two chambers often relied on people in power with little incentive to enforce them.

Dennis has been a presence at the Capitol for years. He worked for Parker — a Republican House member whose office declined to respond to a list of emailed questions for this story — from 2007-15, according to Dennis' LinkedIn profile. Dennis also held a role as a strategist for the House Republican Caucus, his LinkedIn shows.

As the 2015 legislative session wrapped up, Julie Young, who at the time was working in Parker's office, said she endured or witnessed multiple instances of harassment from Dennis, the lawmaker's chief of staff. Young wrote a letter to Parker detailing incidents involving Dennis in the office and shared it with other staff members. Young said she brought a hard copy of the letter to discuss with Parker at a June 2015 meeting the two had scheduled.

The letter, a copy of which was shared with the Tribune, said the instances listed "made [the office] all extremely uncomfortable" and made Parker's "office an unbearably hostile work environment."

"We are under direction to discuss these issues with you first," the letter said, "and then if the situation is not handled internally, we are told to go straight to House Personnel who will take the issue to [then-House Administration Chair] Charlie Geren."

The letter described Dennis speculating about the sex lives of female and male employees in front of other members of the office. The letter said he repeatedly told two staffers they would "sleep together before session is over." Dennis also "repeatedly said to multiple people" that Young has "Fuck me eyes," the letter said.

The letter also described "an office contest" Dennis held "in which he demanded that the winner be able to 'shoot white yogurt onto the loser's face.'" A female staffer lost "and had white yogurt thrown in her face by Rick, in the office," the letter said.

In the two weeks after receiving the letter, Parker met individually with staff members and confirmed with each of them the incidents detailed in that letter, Young told the Tribune. Soon after that, she said, Parker held a meeting with staff in his office and apologized, saying they wouldn't have to come in contact with Dennis moving forward.

Parker, though, continued to pay Dennis and did not sign paperwork terminating his employment until five months later, in November 2015, according to House personnel and payroll records reviewed by the Tribune.

Dennis, in response to an emailed list of questions for this story, largely denied the allegations and said he felt the letter was "unfair." But he did say that, "during that period of time," Parker's office "had too much of a locker room environment."

"I admit that and regret it on behalf of all of us," Dennis said. "However, it is absolutely false that I engaged in any of this activity that wasn't being engaged in by all of us, male and female. The very same kind of banter was pointed at me as well."

In response to the yogurt-throwing allegation, Dennis said it "was not a contest, but rather an agreement" with a friend and office colleague who had a birthday close to his.

"Instead of exchanging birthday gifts, we agreed that on her birthday she could throw a spoon of yogurt at me and I could do the same to her on my birthday," he said. "Neither the instance where one spoonful of yogurt was tossed at me or at my colleague was done in a demeaning manner."

Dennis said the idea came from the TV show "Modern Family" "and the fact that my colleague loved eating yogurt in the afternoons." Staff members from other offices were present, as was his wife, he said.

"It was a joke in which we all engaged in willingly," Dennis said.

Dennis said he asked Parker after the letter surfaced if he could work from home, which he said he did until he left the office in November.

Asked to describe what led to his joining HillCo in early 2016, Dennis said he had decided that he "was ready for a new professional challenge" and "wanted to move to work outside the capitol."

He then "sent out an email to my many professional contacts to inform them that I had decided to pursue new opportunities."

One of those recipients, he said, was a friend who worked at the firm and suggested Dennis consider joining.

"I was interviewed and took a position," Dennis said.

"I was not congenial"

When Dennis started at HillCo in early 2016, he was joining one of the most prominent and lucrative lobbying firms in the state. Texas Monthly once included Miller, one of HillCo's co-founders, on its list of the most powerful people in Texas, calling him "the fixer." In 2004, the magazine noted, Miller arranged a meeting between then-House Speaker Tom Craddick and Pope John Paul II.

Jones, the firm's other founder and a former chief of staff to former House Speaker Gib Lewis, is tied for first on Capitol Inside's "Hired Guns" ranking of the state's most powerful lobbyists.

Texas Ethics Commission records show the firm's stable of lobbyists have roughly 200 clients — including H-E-B, Microsoft, Eli Lilly, United Airlines and the Dallas Cowboys — during the 2021 legislative session, bringing in at least $5 million. Dennis alone listed 27 clients this session, who have paid at least $221,000 for his services, though those contracts ended April 26, records with the ethics commission show.

Since Dennis' hiring, the firm has been approached on at least two occasions by lawmakers or legislative aides expressing concern about Dennis' behavior at the Capitol.

One legislative staffer, who asked not to be named to protect her career, told the Tribune that during the 2017 session, Dennis would visit the House Democrat's office where she worked so often that "it felt like he'd come to seek me out." While there, she said, he would often ask about "inappropriate things," such as imploring her to name "the top five representatives [she'd] fuck."

One day that spring, she said, Dennis walked over to her while she was standing near a copy machine. He stood behind her shoulder, she said, and whispered in her ear: "That's how daddy likes it."

Dennis said in a statement to the Tribune through his lawyers that such words "have never come out of my mouth" and called the allegation "absolutely false."

His reason for visiting that office, he said, was "because a very dear male friend of mine worked there and we enjoyed catching up with one another on a frequent basis."

The staffer shared the incident with Young, who had worked with Dennis during the 2015 session in Parker's office and in 2017 was serving as committee clerk for the House Environmental Regulation Committee. Young relayed the information to her boss, then-state Rep. Joe Pickett, an El Paso Democrat who chaired the committee.

Pickett told the Tribune that he then called HillCo. He reached out to Vilma Luna, a woman at the firm and a Democratic former state lawmaker, in hopes that she would better convey the situation to her colleagues, he said. Pickett told Luna he did not want to see Dennis enter the House Democrat's office for the rest of the legislative session. Luna said the firm would take care of it, he recalled.

"It was a very candid conversation," Pickett told the Tribune. "I didn't beat around the bush, and I was not congenial."

Around the same time, Pickett said, he received a call from Dan Pearson, a lobbyist with HillCo, who told the lawmaker he would take care of the situation. Pearson did not return a request for comment for this story.

A day or two later, Pickett said, he called Luna again and asked whether the situation had been conveyed "to those who need to know."

Luna said in a statement to the Tribune that she "was alerted of the situation in March 2017" and "immediately reported through the appropriate channels."

"To my knowledge, it was handled by the office management," she said.

The staff member who initially complained about Dennis told the Tribune that Dennis stopped by her boss' office after Pickett's conversation with HillCo, but that the visit was "extremely brief" once the lobbyist saw the staffer there. Dennis did not return again to the office for the rest of the session, she said, at least while she was there.

Dennis told the Tribune that he "never made the statement referenced" but "was made aware that a staffer had complained about me." One of his bosses at HillCo, he said, "felt the best way to handle the situation was for me not to return to that office for the remainder of the session, which was about three weeks." Dennis said he "was happy to honor that request."

"It felt like standing up for myself and other staffers got Rick Dennis rewarded," Young told the Tribune. "Tweeting supportive statements doesn't show solidarity when you continue to pay a bad actor and keep him on state payroll. Listening to staffers and not rewarding bad actors shows solidarity."

"We will address this quickly"

In 2019, after Pickett retired from office, Young landed a role as committee clerk for the House Higher Education Committee, which was chaired that session by state Rep. Chris Turner, a Grand Prairie Democrat and head of the House Democratic Caucus.

Young said that as the 2019 session got underway, Dennis, who had clients in the higher education realm, would stop by her office or walk into the committee hearing room while the Higher Education Committee was holding a hearing.

Young said the visits made her uncomfortable because of their history, which prompted her to tell Turner about it and share her experiences with Dennis. Once Turner was made aware of the situation, the lawmaker told the Tribune, he called Jones, the HillCo co-founder. Turner said Jones assured him Dennis' visits to Young would stop.

Around the same time, Pearson, a lobbyist with HillCo, reached out to Young. Text messages reviewed by the Tribune indicate he told her "you have my word that we will address this quickly and remove any chance of this [recurring]."

The two met later that afternoon, Young said. Afterward, Pearson told Young he had already spoken with Jones about the matter and that the two planned to speak with Dennis later that day.

"At a minimum," Pearson said in a text message to Young, "we will assure you he will not come in contact with you in the Committee process."

Young said Dennis stopped coming by her office after that. Dennis offered the same response to this alleged incident as he did to the one in 2017 — that while he "never made the statement referenced," he "was made aware that a staffer had complained about me" and "was happy to honor" a request from HillCo to not return to that office for the remainder of session.

"Standing up for decency"

Although the DPS investigation has concluded, leaders in the House have said conversations about improving the culture at the Capitol should continue.

"The Texas House remains firm in our commitment to move forward with legislation and administrative policy changes that create a safer work environment and culture for our entire Capitol community," said Phelan, the House speaker, and state Reps. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, and Donna Howard, D-Austin, in a statement after the investigation ended.

Earlier that week, Phelan delivered a speech on the House floor and called for reforms to the chamber's sexual misconduct policy. He said he was directing the House General Investigating Committee to create an email hotline for staffers in House offices to submit reports or complaints of harassment in the workplace. Phelan also said he had directed the House Administration Committee to begin changing the chamber's recently implemented sexual harassment prevention training from a virtual experience to an in-person one.

The committee "has prepared and distributed signage" to member and committee offices that outline the new email hotline, said state Rep. Will Metcalf, R-Conroe, chair of the Administration Committee, in a May 6 statement to the Tribune. The committee, he said, "is also currently in the process of implementing the new in-person workplace conduct training program."

In the meantime, lawmakers in both chambers have taken legislative action on bills related to sexual harassment prevention training. On the House side, legislation spearheaded by Thompson, the Houston Democrat, passed the chamber earlier this month that would require sexual harassment prevention training for state lawmakers, statewide elected officials and registered lobbyists.

The bill passed the chamber 145-2, with Phelan casting a rare vote for it and Republican state Reps. Matt Schaefer of Tyler and Tony Tinderholt of Arlington voting against the bill.

In a statement submitted to the House journal, Schaefer said that while he supported the intent of the legislation, "the deficiency in due process for an accused citizen" prompted his opposition to it. Tinderholt said in his own statement submitted to the journal that he also "fundamentally" agreed with the intent of the legislation but disagreed with the jurisdiction it would give the director of the Texas Ethics Commission.

As she laid out the bill, Thompson asked members to applaud Phelan "for standing up for decency, for integrity."

"It wasn't pillow talk," she said. "It was ... the right thing to do for a leader of this body."

Jolie McCullough and Carla Astudillo contributed to this report.

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can receive confidential help by calling the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network's 24/7 toll-free support line at 800-656-4673 or visiting its online hotline.

Disclosure: HillCo, H-E-B and Microsoft have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.


Texas House speaker calls for reforms after allegations of 'predatory behavior' by lobbyist who allegedly drugged Capitol staffer

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan in a speech to colleagues Monday called for reforms to some of the chamber's policies relating to sexual harassment training and reporting, days after an allegation came to light that a lobbyist used a date rape drug on a Capitol staffer.

"These allegations shake our Capitol family to its core," the first-term Republican speaker said soon after the House gaveled in, "and I am disgusted that this sort of predatory behavior is still taking place in and around our Capitol."

On Saturday, the Texas Department of Public Safety confirmed it had opened an investigation into a complaint made recently by a Capitol staffer. Officials have so far declined to comment on further details, including the names of anyone allegedly involved. The news was first reported by the Austin American-Statesman.

News of the allegation has prompted state lawmakers, staffers and other Capitol observers to denounce the alleged incident, with some House members declaring on social media they were banning from their offices any lobbyist or lobby firm associated with the accusation.

By Sunday, HillCo Partners, a prominent Austin-based lobby firm, told state lawmakers in an email that it had launched an internal investigation into the matter. One co-founder of the firm, Bill Miller, later told The Texas Tribune that HillCo had been "tipped off" that one of its employees "is a person of interest" in the investigation.

"If facts come to light that anyone associated with HillCo partners had any involvement with such conduct, that person will be immediately terminated," HillCo co-founder Buddy Jones wrote, adding that the firm would also cooperate with the DPS investigation.

Phelan said during his speech that he was directing the House General Investigating Committee to establish an email hotline for staffers in House offices to submit reports or complaints of harassment in the workplace. The move, he said, was aimed at making it easier for people to report cases of harassment confidentially.

"Victims shouldn't have to decide between their career and coming forward," Phelan said. "That has to change."

The speaker also fcalled for the chamber's sexual harassment prevention training to be completed in-person rather than virtually, saying such a change would be "far more effective." Phelan said he had directed the House Administration Committee to begin changing the protocol.

"I stand here today having to address these disgusting, detestable allegations that are a symptom of a culture that has been festering in this building for far too long," Phelan said during his speech. "There is an active investigation underway, and we must let that process play out. However, this sort of behavior has no place in this Capitol, and moving forward, we can and will do better."

For years, the Legislature has been under scrutiny over its handling of reports of sexual misconduct of harassment. Lawmakers in recent years have revised their sexual harassment policies after reports surfaced that previous protocols were flawed and offered little protection for victims.

In 2017, the House updated its sexual harassment policy to include language that strengthened protections against retaliation and provided specific steps to report inappropriate behavior. And in 2019, the chamber voted to create and strengthen investigations related to sexual harassment, which included moving misconduct complaints to a committee with subpoena power and cementing the use of independent investigations of elected officials.

The Senate, meanwhile, revised its sexual harassment policy in 2018 to better detail how to report inappropriate behavior, among other things.

Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway could get a fee from every power customer in Texas: report

As the Texas Legislature debated how to respond to last month's winter storm-driven power crisis, executives at billionaire Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Energy were pitching lawmakers an idea: The group would spend over $8 billion to build 10 new natural gas power plants in the state. Lawmakers would agree to create a revenue stream to provide Berkshire a return on its investment through an additional charge on Texans' power bills.

Representatives for Berkshire Hathaway Energy have been in Austin meeting with lawmakers and state leaders for the past week and a half, according to a person working closely on the issue.

The proposed company, which would likely be known as the Texas Emergency Power Reserve, would build and maintain plants that sit idle during normal times, according to a slide deck obtained by The Texas Tribune. Whenever demand for power in the state threatened to surpass supply, these new plants would kick in to make up the difference, if ordered to do so by the state's grid operator.

"When you flip that switch and say, look, demand has exceeded supply, it has to come on in 10 minutes," Chris Brown, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Energy, said in an interview Thursday with the Tribune. "That's the Texas Emergency Power Reserve Promise — that's the promise that we're making to the citizens of Texas."

In the presentation, the representatives estimated the cost of that new charge to consumers as $1.42 per month for residential customers, $9.61 for commercial customers and $58.94 for industrial customers. The pitch to state leaders also included a poll conducted by Republican pollster Mike Baseslice suggesting that Texans would be broadly supportive of paying a little more on their power bills to increase reliability. The poll was conducted from March 17-21 among 800 likely voters in Texas, according to toplines of the poll obtained by the Tribune.

Over the past week, Berkshire Hathaway Energy, part of Buffett's multinational conglomerate company Berkshire Hathaway, has hired eight lobbyists in Austin at a cost of more than $300,000, according to records filed with the Texas Ethics Commission. One of those lobbyists is Allen Blakemore, a Houston political consultant who serves as a top strategist to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Blakemore did not respond to a request for comment.

Executives also met privately with key legislative leaders, including the lieutenant governor, who presides over the Senate, and new House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont.

A senior adviser for Patrick confirmed the lieutenant governor met with Berkshire Hathaway executives earlier this month. And a spokesperson for Phelan said the speaker met with the executives recently. A spokesperson for Gov. Greg Abbott, who has so far pushed for the weatherization of power generators as a legislative solution, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

If approved, the deal would signal a move away from decades of a competitive electricity market in Texas in which all power generators in Texas are paid for the energy they produce and sell, rather than the power they could potentially generate. Berkshire Hathaway Energy executives say their plan would not create a "capacity" market, but instead, serve as highly regulated back-up electricity generation.

The company says that building extra power generation in Texas would help ease fears of a repeat of the February power outages during which dozens of people died.

"We're not in favor at all of getting rid of [the deregulated market]," Brown said. "We think competition is to Texas' benefit. We're not dipping into the market at all."

Power grids must keep energy demand and supply in balance at every moment or risk uncontrolled blackouts. The February outages were ordered by the grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, in a move to prevent a bigger catastrophe that could have left most of the state without power for weeks.

Under Berkshire Hathaway's plan, ERCOT would control when the new power plants are activated to avoid the threat of such widespread power outages, and customers would pay a fixed fee only to cover the project's costs, while the price for energy supplied to the market would go to the state, not the company. It's a similar model to how transmission and distribution utility companies are regulated.

Brown said that while the company is not against the state's procurement process, it believes it's "uniquely suited" to carry out the idea because of its $8.3 billion investment and a commitment to have those 10 plants, totaling 10 gigawatts of additional generation capacity, operational by November 2023. Under its proposal, the company would also owe the state $4 billion if it did not have the plants online by then, Brown said.

"Certainly there's other entities out there that could potentially do it," he said, "that list is pretty short."

Texas deregulated its electricity market decades ago, theorizing that the price of electricity in the market — based on demand — would attract a sufficient amount of power supply. When demand for power is high, the price for power increases, and companies that can supply electricity to the grid make more money. The more cheaply a power plant can generate electricity, the higher the profit margin when they sell it in the wholesale market. Conversely, a plant that has been expensively weatherized to be able to operate in the extreme cold, or a plant that only operates on the few hottest days of the year, represents a big upfront investment for what may be little return in Texas.

Other regions of the country, including New England, tackle this potential mismatch by using government funds to subsidize the cost of plants that sit dormant for much of the year but turn on when demand is high. That's the type of plant Berkshire Hathaway Energy wants to build in Texas — but instead, grid operators would decide when the plants ramp up.

Since a deadline to file legislation at the Legislature has already passed, the proposal would likely get tacked onto existing legislation. It was unclear Thursday which specific bill the pitch could be added to if lawmakers decided to act on it, though the company said it was talking with lawmakers about multiple pieces of legislation and working toward getting a committee hearing on the proposal sometime next week.

Texas' competitive and deregulated market structure has come under criticism in the aftermath of the February power crisis. Power companies did not prepare plants to withstand severe winter weather, in part because companies build plants as cheaply as possible to maximize their profit margins. When the plants tripped offline during the winter storm, unprepared for the extreme cold, there wasn't enough power generation available to the grid. Power prices spiked, and the Public Utility Commission of Texas ordered ERCOT to set prices at the artificial cap — $9,000 per megawatt-hour — to signal to power companies that any and all power was desperately needed.

But energy experts have expressed doubt that merely having more power plants would have prevented the crisis. Electric generation tripped offline due to freezing temperatures and a shortage of natural gas, which fuels many plants in the state.

"We didn't have a shortage of power plants, we had a shortage of power plants that could work in the cold, and the gas to run them," said Dan Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University. "Texas has an enormous amount of natural gas plants already. It's not at all clear that there's a need to have more power plants built."

Berkshire Hathaway's presentation argues that adding power generation capacity would be more cost effective for the state than upgrading existing plants to withstand extreme weather. Brown, the CEO, said that the natural gas plants would be winterized and maintain seven days of natural gas storage on site to ensure it could operate during an emergency.

Lawmakers in recent weeks have quickly moved on legislation to address the February power crisis. Last week, the Texas House State Affairs Committee moved forward a bill that would mandate the weatherization of power plants, or mandate that power plants can function under extreme weather conditions. On Thursday, the Texas Senate Jurisprudence Committee advanced Senate Bill 3, a wide-ranging winter storm bill that also mandates winterization for power plants and the natural gas supply chain.

Another bill and a joint resolution filed in the House by Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, would aid power companies in funding those upgrades. But that legislation, as filed, includes language that would allow the low-cost loan program outlined in the bill to be used for building new power plants as well. It would direct the funds to prioritize projects that prepare facilities for cold weather, but it would also prioritize projects that provide excess power to the grid for periods of high demand — in other words, new power plants.

J.P. Urban, senior vice president and acting CEO of the Association of Electric Companies of Texas, a trade association of electric companies in the state, warned lawmakers earlier this week against subsidizing new power plants in their response to last month's outages.

"We believe the program should only focus on bolstering resiliency and existing facilities to avoid disruption in the competitive market," Urban said during a committee meeting Tuesday.

But lawmakers responded that they want more power generation on Texas' grid, not just for future storms, but generally for the growing state population.

"We're going to be a little bit more open to the types of investments that need to be made," said Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, responding to Urban. "We're going to need more power in Texas, period. Freeze or no freeze." The committee left the legislation pending on Tuesday, but witnesses and lawmakers indicated they would support the Huberty bill.

Even with the support of the Legislature's top leaders, the Berkshire Hathaway deal will need to win the approval of the rank-and-file members — a lesson Buffett learned in a past session. In 2017, after the billionaire met with Abbott and Patrick at the Capitol, the Senate used emergency powers to quickly craft legislation that became known as the "Buffett Bill," a special interest carve-out allowing Buffett to be exempt from a state law that was barring people from owning both a vehicle manufacturing company and auto dealerships. The bill was effectively killed after Tea Party activists blasted it — and the attempt to fast-track it — as special treatment for a rich and powerful business owner.

Other lawmakers and officials have expressed doubts about letting Buffett and his companies play too big of a role in Texas.

Speaking at Texas Energy Day at the Capitol Wednesday morning, Texas Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian, one of the state's oil and gas regulators, criticized President Joe Biden over his energy policies and in doing so, swiped at "Warren Buffett's company." Christian said canceling oil and natural gas pipelines would put more trains on railroad tracks, and "Warren Buffett's company makes a lot of money from it."

Mitchell Ferman and Shawn Mulcahy contributed to this report.

After House stalls on readjusting electricity prices, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick urges Gov. Greg Abbott to use emergency powers

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Thursday pleaded for Gov. Greg Abbott to take executive action on reversing billions of dollars in charges for wholesale electricity during last month's deadly winter storm after the Texas House adjourned for the week without taking up the issue.

"The governor of Texas is a very powerful person," Patrick said at a Capitol news conference, ramping up his dayslong campaign to get Abbott to intervene. "He can do anything he wants."

After the Senate moved at a breakneck pace Monday to pass Senate Bill 2142, electricity repricing legislation prompted by the storm, the House indicated that it would not take action on the proposal. The lower chamber instead stressed it planned to take a more deliberative approach. And, while the bill was referred to a House committee Thursday morning, the House gaveled out until Monday afternoon.

The bill would have forced the state's energy grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, to reverse roughly $4.2 billion in charges after an independent market monitor found ERCOT artificially inflated prices and overbilled energy companies by $16 billion. And included in the legislation was a March 20 deadline for the Public Utility Commission, which oversees ERCOT, to take action to reverse such charges.

Patrick on Thursday said Abbott could, using his emergency powers, order the commission to tell ERCOT to either correct the charges or that such charges were under investigation, which the lieutenant governor said would extend the deadline.

"The House said they wanted more time — that would give them more time," Patrick said.

Patrick told reporters he met "at length" Thursday with House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, and they had a "good discussion." Referring to House members, Patrick said he thought the Senate was "able to get there faster than they were" — passing an electricity repricing bill — "because we can move quickly" by suspending the rules in the Senate.

After the Senate passed the repricing legislation, Phelan had expressed skepticism toward reversing such charges, saying in a statement that doing so "based on disagreement with PUC and ERCOT's management decisions is an extraordinary government intervention into the free market." Phelan also said there had been "no error" in the operator's pricing, contrasting himself with Patrick, who has repeatedly referred to those billions of dollars in charges as a mistake.

Despite Patrick's pleas, Abbott had still not clearly taken sides in the debate as of Thursday evening. In response to Patrick's news conference, an Abbott spokesperson issued a statement that did not address Patrick's latest requests of the governor but reiterated the emergency items that Abbott announced after the storm, including "inaccurate and excessive charges." The statement also pointed to movement in the House on Abbott's emergency items, noting that a lower-chamber committee was expected to vote Thursday night on multiple proposals related to the power grid.

The House State Affairs Committee did just that on Thursday, passing a slate of bills that would address the power grid's vulnerabilities and change the governance structure of ERCOT, among other things. But lawmakers admitted those bills were still works in progress. And none of them addressed the ERCOT billing dispute.

While statements suggest Abbott is more aligned with the House, he still has not shot down the Senate bill and avoided explicitly endorsing either chamber's strategy. Asked Wednesday whether he agreed with the House or Senate's approach to electricity repricing, Abbott said he had "already made multiple comments about that."

It was not entirely clear which prior comments Abbott was referring to, but on Monday, as the Senate was preparing to rush through SB 2142, Abbott seemed to urge a more deliberative approach — and one left up to the Legislature.

Texas is currently under multiple disaster declarations, including one that Abbott issued Feb. 12 in response to the winter storm. For over a year, the state has also been under a disaster declaration due to the coronavirus pandemic — and Abbott has taken heat from some in his own party over how he has wielded his emergency powers during that time.

The winter weather last month caused failures in every type of power source, creating an electricity crisis during which nearly 4.5 million Texas homes and businesses were without power. For days, ERCOT charged the maximum amount allowed for wholesale electricity — $9,000 per megawatt-hour — in order to incentivize generators to send power to the grid.

It's still not clear how much the current billing dispute will impact average Texans. At least some of the additional costs incurred by retail electric providers would likely be passed on to customers through rate increases. But the impact varies by company — and those that sent power to the grid while rates were inflated stand to lose money if ERCOT reprices.

Abbott said the Legislature needed to investigate the issue and "weed through all these complexities," specifically whether repricing was in conflict with two sections of the Texas Constitution.

On Wednesday, though, Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion that said the PUC has "complete authority" to reprice and downplayed the same exact constitutional issues that Abbott brought up.

"A court would likely find that such corrective action by the Public Utility Commission" would not conflict with the state constitution "provided that such regulatory action furthers a compelling public interest," Paxton wrote in the nonbinding opinion, which Patrick requested two days earlier.

Patrick also scored a win Tuesday night, when Abbott announced the resignation of Arthur D'Andrea, who had recently been tapped by the governor to serve as chair of the commission. The governor said he had asked for D'Andrea's resignation, which is effective upon the appointment of a successor. Abbott said he would name D'Andrea's replacement "in the coming days" — an appointment that, if made during the 2021 legislative session, will need to be confirmed by the Patrick-led Senate.

Abbott, whose office had defended D'Andrea on Friday, did not provide a reason for why he had requested D'Andrea's resignation. But the news came hours after Texas Monthly published a story Tuesday saying D'Andrea had told out-of-state investors on a call he would work to throw "the weight of the commission" behind stopping calls for repricing.

At a news conference in Dallas the next day, Abbott did not offer much new detail when asked why he had wanted D'Andrea to step down.

"We want to make sure that we are going to show the vision to our fellow Texans that we are charting a new and fresh course for the Public Utility Commission, and the action that I made is one of many steps that will be taken to achieve those goals," Abbott said.

Despite the House's difference in approach, which includes a package of proposals the House State Affairs Committee was considering Thursday, some lawmakers in the chamber indicated this week they would have at least liked to have a conversation about repricing.

While the House was in session Wednesday, state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, asked Phelan whether the House could assemble as a committee of the whole the next day to consider SB 2142. Phelan said he would not recognize Martinez Fischer for such a motion.

And, asked at Thursday's news conference whether he had spoken with House members sympathetic to his position on repricing, Patrick said, "Yes, I'll leave it at that."

Disclosure: Texas Monthly has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.


Greg Abbott urged to reverse billions in Texas electrical bills: ‘He can do anything he wants’

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Thursday pleaded for Gov. Greg Abbott to take executive action on reversing billions of dollars in charges for wholesale electricity during last month's deadly winter storm after the Texas House adjourned for the week without taking up the issue.

"The governor of Texas is a very powerful person," Patrick said at a Capitol news conference, ramping up his dayslong campaign to get Abbott to intervene. "He can do anything he wants."

After the Senate moved at a breakneck pace Monday to pass Senate Bill 2142, electricity repricing legislation prompted by the storm, the House indicated that it would not take action on the proposal. The lower chamber instead stressed it planned to take a more deliberative approach. And, while the bill was referred to a House committee Thursday morning, the House gaveled out until Monday afternoon.

The bill would have forced the state's energy grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, to reverse roughly $4.2 billion in charges after an independent market monitor found ERCOT artificially inflated prices and overbilled energy companies by $16 billion. And included in the legislation was a March 20 deadline for the Public Utility Commission, which oversees ERCOT, to take action to reverse such charges.

Patrick on Thursday said Abbott could, using his emergency powers, order the commission to tell ERCOT to either correct the charges or that such charges were under investigation, which the lieutenant governor said would extend the deadline.

"The House said they wanted more time -- that would give them more time," Patrick said.

Patrick told reporters he met "at length" Thursday with House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, and they had a "good discussion." Referring to House members, Patrick said he thought the Senate was "able to get there faster than they were" — passing an electricity repricing bill — "because we can move quickly" by suspending the rules in the Senate.

After the Senate passed the repricing legislation, Phelan had expressed skepticism toward reversing such charges, saying in a statement that doing so "based on disagreement with PUC and ERCOT's management decisions is an extraordinary government intervention into the free market." Phelan also said there had been "no error" in the operator's pricing, contrasting himself with Patrick, who has repeatedly referred to those billions of dollars in charges as a mistake.

Despite Patrick's pleas, Abbott had still not clearly taken sides in the debate as of Thursday afternoon, and a spokesperson for the governor did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Asked Wednesday whether he agreed with the House or Senate's approach to electricity repricing, Abbott said he had "already made multiple comments about that."

It was not entirely clear which prior comments Abbott was referring to, but on Monday, as the Senate was preparing to rush through SB 2142, Abbott seemed to urge a more deliberative approach.

The winter weather last month caused failures in every type of power source, creating an electricity crisis during which nearly 4.5 million Texas homes and businesses were without power. For days, ERCOT charged the maximum amount allowed for wholesale electricity — $9,000 per megawatt-hour — in order to incentivize generators to send power to the grid.

It's still not clear how much the current billing dispute will impact average Texans. At least some of the additional costs incurred by retail electric providers would likely be passed on to customers through rate increases. But the impact varies by company — and those that sent power to the grid while rates were inflated stand to lose money if ERCOT reprices.

Abbott said the Legislature needed to investigate the issue and "weed through all these complexities," specifically whether repricing was in conflict with two sections of the Texas Constitution.

On Wednesday, though, Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion that said the PUC has "complete authority" to reprice and downplayed the same exact constitutional issues that Abbott brought up.

"A court would likely find that such corrective action by the Public Utility Commission" would not conflict with the state constitution "provided that such regulatory action furthers a compelling public interest," Paxton wrote in the nonbinding opinion, which Patrick requested two days earlier.

Patrick also scored a win Tuesday night, when Abbott announced the resignation of Arthur D'Andrea, who had recently been tapped by the governor to serve as chair of the commission. The governor said he had asked for D'Andrea's resignation, which is effective upon the appointment of a successor. Abbott said he would name D'Andrea's replacement "in the coming days" — an appointment that, if made during the 2021 legislative session, will need to be confirmed by the Patrick-led Senate.

Abbott, whose office had defended D'Andrea on Friday, did not provide a reason for why he had requested D'Andrea's resignation. But the news came hours after Texas Monthly published a story Tuesday saying D'Andrea had told out-of-state investors on a call he would work to throw "the weight of the commission" behind stopping calls for repricing.

At a news conference in Dallas the next day, Abbott did not offer much new detail when asked why he had wanted D'Andrea to step down.

"We want to make sure that we are going to show the vision to our fellow Texans that we are charting a new and fresh course for the Public Utility Commission, and the action that I made is one of many steps that will be taken to achieve those goals," Abbott said.

Disclosure: Texas Monthly has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.


Texas' last Public Utility Commission member resigns at Gov. Greg Abbott's request

Public Utility Commission Chair Arthur D'Andrea, the only remaining member of the three-seat board that regulates Texas utilities, is resigning from his post, Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday night.

Abbott said in a statement that he asked for and accepted D'Andrea's resignation and plans to name "a replacement in the coming days who will have the responsibility of charting a new and fresh course for the agency." D'Andrea's resignation will be effective immediately upon the appointment of a successor, according to a copy of D'Andrea's resignation letter that was obtained by The Texas Tribune.

He is the latest in a long line of officials who have left the PUC or the Electric Reliability Council of Texas since last month's deadly winter storm plunged large swaths of Texas into subfreezing temperatures and overwhelmed the state's electricity infrastructure, causing massive power outages. At least 57 people died in Texas as a result of the storm — most of them from hypothermia — according to preliminary data the state health department released Monday.

The reason for D'Andrea's resignation was not immediately clear late Tuesday. It came hours after Texas Monthly reported that he told out-of-state investors on a call he would work to throw "the weight of the commission" behind stopping calls to reverse billions of dollars in charges for wholesale electricity during the storm. The cost of electricity last month has emerged as a hot-button issue in this year's legislative session after an independent market monitor estimated that the electric grid operator overbilled power companies around the time of the storm.

On Monday, the Texas Senate suspended its own rules to quickly pass a bill to force the PUC to reverse billions of dollars in charges for wholesale electricity during the winter storm. D'Andrea has publicly resisted such calls.

The PUC regulates the state's electric, telecommunication and water and sewer utilities. D'Andrea was promoted to chair by Abbott less than two weeks ago to replace the chair at the time, DeAnn Walker, who resigned at the beginning of the month over fallout related to the winter storm. The other commissioner, Shelly Botkin, resigned a week after Walker.

According to a recording of the call obtained by Texas Monthly, D'Andrea at one point said he expected to remain the sole member of the commission for now, adding he did not think Abbott would want to appoint new commissioners during the legislative session since the Senate would have to confirm appointees.

"I went from being on a very hot seat to having one of the safest jobs in Texas," D'Andrea said during the call. "I think it's just going to be me for a while."

A spokesperson for the commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A lawyer by trade, D'Andrea previously served as assistant general counsel to Abbott.

Until last month, the PUC operated largely outside of the limelight. Though the agency held regular public meetings, they were usually sparsely attended and often featured arcane policy discussions that could last for six to eight hours.

D'Andrea has fielded criticism over the repricing debate at the Legislature — and was grilled by Lt. Gov Dan Patrick himself during a Senate hearing Thursday, a highly unusual move by the head of the Texas Senate.

The next day, a spokesperson for Abbott said the governor "absolutely" still remained confident in D'Andrea's ability to chair the commission. Hours later Friday, Patrick called on Abbott to "intercede" and replace D'Andrea.

"Texans deserve to have trust and confidence in the Public Utility Commission, and this action is one of many steps that will be taken to achieve that goal," Abbott said Tuesday night.

Several bills have been filed in the aftermath of the power outages, yet there's no clear understanding of who's at fault and no consensus on what should be done. And beyond Austin, congressional subcommittees have launched their own investigations into February's events and into the state's electric grid operator.

At the height of the power crisis, nearly 4.5 million Texas homes and businesses were without power. That's because nearly half of the total power generation capacity for the main state electricity grid was offline as weather conditions caused failures in every type of power source: natural gas, coal, wind and nuclear.

The PUC is one of the state's smaller agencies, with about 170 full-time employees. By contrast, the Texas Railroad Commission — the state's oil and natural gas regulator — employs about five times as many people.

Under normal circumstances, the utility regulator is helmed by a three-person board, each of whom is appointed by the governor and subject to approval by the Texas Senate. Commissioners have small teams of advisers and are bound by a strict set of laws laid out in the Public Utility Regulatory Act, or PURA. So much as a stray hallway conversation is a violation of open meeting requirements.

During a PUC meeting last week, as the last remaining commissioner, D'Andrea heard more than 20 minutes of public testimony, soared through the agenda and even voted on a couple of items. It lasted fewer than 45 minutes.

This is not the first time the PUC served with one commissioner. In 2001, Max Yzaguirre served on the commission alone after Pat Wood's term expired and Judy Walsh resigned. PURA, the agency's governing law, states that "a vacancy or disqualification does not prevent the remaining commissioner or commissioners from exercising the powers of the commission."

The PUC is scheduled to meet again Thursday.

Clarification, March 17, 2021: The original headline of this story implied that Arthur D'Andrea's resignation was effective immediately, based off of Gov. Greg Abbott's statement. After the initial version of this story was published, The Texas Tribune obtained a copy of D'Andrea's resignation letter, which said his departure would not be effective until Abbott appointed a replacement.

Texas officials block electricity providers from sending bills, disconnecting utilities for nonpayment

Gov. Greg Abbott said he and other state leaders are working fast to find solutions for homeowners and renters facing steep electricity bills after a winter storm left many Texans without power for days.

After Abbott convened what his office described as an "emergency meeting" Saturday with lawmakers to discuss the issue, the Public Utility Commission on Sunday met to sign two orders, including one that would direct energy providers to temporarily stop disconnecting customers from power or water because they have not paid.

The commission also signed an order to stop companies from sending invoices or bill estimates to customers "until we work through issues of how we are going to financially manage the situation we are in," commission Chair DeAnn Walker said.

"Disconnect for non pays cannot occur on a Sunday and that's why we're acting today at this hour... trying to stop any from occurring tomorrow," Walker said before the three-member commission approved the orders.

Both Abbott and the commission's meetings come as more Texans are reporting receiving exorbitant electric bills despite not having power during the storm. One Texan, according to The New York Times, received a $16,752 electric bill. Not every resident will see the spikes in their bills.

Abbott, speaking during a news conference Sunday in San Antonio, called the recent spike in energy bills "the top priority for the Texas Legislature right now" and said lawmakers were working on a bipartisan basis to help address the issue.

Along with Abbott, the heads of the Senate and House — Republicans Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan, respectively — were also part of that Saturday meeting, as were chairs of the budget-writing Senate Finance and House Appropriations committees, among others.

Later this week, House and Senate committees will convene to investigate how outages happened and what roles entities like the Electric Reliability Council of Texas played in those power failures.

"Thursday begins the questioning of the stakeholders involved to find out if anything went wrong, what went wrong, who's to blame and, more importantly, what solutions moving forward we can do as a state Legislature ... to make sure this absolutely never happens again," said state Rep. Craig Goldman, a Fort Worth Republican who chairs the House Energy Resources Committee, during an NBC-DFW interview that aired Sunday.

Jolie McCullough contributed to this report.

Disclosure: New York Times has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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The storm moved ashore just east of the Texas-Louisiana line around midnight Thursday. The National Hurricane Center warned that both states could experience massive devastation from storm surge and wind damage.

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'I truly thought last Friday was gonna be my last,' says Texas hardline conservative lawmaker who was hospitalized for coronavirus

State Rep. Tony Tinderholt was hospitalized last week after testing positive for the novel coronavirus, the lawmaker confirmed Friday to The Texas Tribune, marking the first known case involving a member of the Texas Legislature.

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