Record winter storms, power outages throw wrench into legislative machine

February’s winter storms left Texas state government with a bad case of frostbite.
The Texas Constitution allows lawmakers only 140 days every two years to do their normal business. More than a month had already expired when the deadly February northers hit, and other than legislation involving the state budget — the only measure the Constitution requires them to handle while they’re in session — lawmakers had yet to assign any bills to committee.

Analysis by Donnis Baggett, Texas Press Association

Legislators, the governor and most every other elected state official now are scrambling to deal with a monumental issue that wasn’t on their radar before Valentine’s Day: the near-catastrophic failure of the state’s power grid. Irate voters want to know how that happened — and how those officials will make sure it never happens again.
Life-or-death public health and safety issues have a way of sucking all the oxygen out of a meeting place — even one as big as the Texas Capitol. The pink granite building, which already was stuffed to the gills with COVID-19 pandemic legislation, is suddenly full of hyperventilating officials who’ve developed an intense interest in electrical generation and delivery. Thousands of pieces of other, unrelated legislation already filed — not to mention the thousands of bills still being crafted — will have a hard time catching their attention.
That’s tough news for groups trying to pass legislation, but good news for those trying to kill bad bills. The Texas Press Association fits both descriptions.
We’re lobbying for a number of good transparency and accountability bills. Here are some important ones that have been filed as of Messenger deadline:
• HB 1360 by Rep. Brooks Landgraf, R-Odessa, would fix a transparency problem created by SB 2 last session. The much-ballyhooed tax reform measure, which was touted as a pro-transparency bill, eliminated the newspaper notice of tax rates and calculation, which actually made the process less transparent. This bill would put newspaper notice back into the law. 
• HB 1416 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, would clarify that Saturday, Sunday and holidays (state and federal) are the only days that are considered business days. The 10-business-day period to respond to public information requests has been abused during the pandemic due to claims that a day where only a skeleton crew was present did not count as a business day. 
• HB 1810 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, would require that electronic public information be produced in a searchable and sortable format, such as an Excel spreadsheet, if the information is maintained in that manner and if a requestor asks for information in a searchable and sortable format. Additionally, the bill clarifies that the public has a right to data dictionaries and record layouts defining data fields. Requestors would also be able to obtain column-header information allowing them to make sense of the data they request.
• SB 729 by Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, is the Senate companion bill to the searchable-sortable bill, HB 1810, filed by Rep. Capriglione in the House.
Then there are the bad bills that we oppose. Here are some of the worst:
• HB 537 by Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, would allow a county governmental entity or representative to satisfy any newspaper notice requirement by simply posting the notice on the county’s Internet website.
• HB 1030 by Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, is a sweeping bill that would authorize the following alternative media to satisfy newspaper public notice requirements:
(1) social media;
(2) free newspapers;
(3) school newspapers;
(4) a homeowners’ association newsletter or magazine;
(5) utility bills;
(6) direct mailings; and
(7) any other form of media authorized by the comptroller.
• HB 1212 by Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, would make public notice in newspapers discretionary for property seized by a peace officer. Notices of property and disposal could be placed either on the website of the law enforcement agency or in a newspaper of general circulation.
• HB 1543 by Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, would eliminate an important public notice. Current state law regarding Public Improvement Districts requires a newspaper public notice for a hearing at which improvements (landscaping, lighting, signs, sidewalks, roadways, artwork, parking, water, wastewater, drainage, affordable housing and more) are proposed. After six months, if the municipality or county adopts the proposed improvement Public Improvement District, a second notice is required before the project is authorized.  This bill would eliminate the second notice, so the public would not be notified that the project is approved and moving forward. 
When and whether any of these bills will get committee hearings remains to be seen. If they do, we’ll let you know — and we’ll ask you to help us get legislators to do the right thing. So please stay tuned, and stay well.