Is time almost up for Senate Bill 661?

Tick tock. Only 9 days left in the 82nd Legislative Session and residential and business energy consumers are still awaiting final word on two key bills. One is Senate Bill 661, which is legislation to reauthorize the Public Utility Commission. The other is Senate Bill 655, which would reauthorize the Texas Railroad Commission. These bills could have an impact on what millions pay for utility service.

The bills’ status? As of Friday, SB 661 had made it all the way through the Senate process and also had passed out of the House State Affairs Committee. But SB 661 has yet to appear on the floor of  the Texas House of Representatives. It’s passage is important: the PUC sets electric rates and also exercises authority over ERCOT, which is the organization that manages the state’s power grid.  Of interest is how the legislation will impact ERCOT’s board of directors. Texas residential and business consumers pay the entire cost of electricity in the ERCOT market, and hope to get more representation on that board. Right now consumers are outnumbered by electric industry officials and others.

Senate Bill 655 also remains pending, although it has moved along a bit further. This bill would reauthorize the Texas Railroad Commission and change its name to the Texas Oil and Gas Commission. SB 655 is important to Texas homeowners and businesses because the Texas Railroad Commission sets base rates for natural gas utility service. Like decisions made by the PUC, Railroad Commission decisions impact millions.

An issue to watch out for involves the independent State Office of Administrative Hearings. One version of SB 655 would direct the Railroad Commission to utilize SOAH hearing examiners to adjudicate gas utility cases. Currently, the Railroad Commission employs internal hearing examiners for this purpose. Consumer advocates support using SOAH examiners because it would create an important firewall between the examiners making recommendations in rate cases, and the commissioners who must make a final decision in them. Utility lobbyists have mounted a full-court press against this important reform.

Different versions of Senate Bill 655 have passed out of the House and the Senate and those differences must be ironed out before the bill can go to the governor.  Like Senate Bill 661, SB 655 is a so-called “Sunset” bill, meaning that its passage is required for the continued operation of the agency. If these bills don’t pass, lawmakers must adopt temporary legislation to keep the agencies in business until the next session in 2013 — at which time lawmakers can take up new Sunset bills.

The 82nd session ends May 30th.