How solar salve was squandered at the Lege

Alicia Ramirez

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In a session where about 70 renewable energy bills were introduced, only one for the advancement of solar was sent to Governor Perry's desk for approval. However, the most significant efforts to establish a viable solar energy industry in the state died. The final solar energy bill to die was House Bill 1243.

After Senate bill 545, an attempt to create a $500 million incentive program for the use of solar energy, died in the House because of time restraints, it was added to HB 1243, a bill intended to make sure homeowners would be paid a fair market value for the excess energy they created by using solar energy.

Representative Sylvester Turner (left), a Houston Democrat, challenged the relevancy of the amendment, as documented by archived video footage (see 5/29/09 1:05pm) as well as journal notes (Ref. pg. 5968) hosted on the Texas Legislature's website. "The only thing I ask is to treat me fairly... Don't send me back to the Senate in a conference and when the utilities come to raise our electricity bills, it's OK for them."

Democrat Representative Pete Gallego from Alpine (below right), author of HB 1243, said this week that he has a hard time believing the charge of unfairness Turner made.

"Members were treated more fairly this year than they had been treated in the past six years," said Representative Gallego. "It was more open and more fair and more people participated than at any time in a very very long time.

"My impression is that if Mr. Turner sacrifices the opportunity to move Texas ahead in both solar and wind because he personally felt that he hadn't been treated fairly then it's a huge disservice and it's a very small minded decision," said Gallego.

At 10:37 p.m. on May 29th, with an hour and 23 minutes to pass the bill, the Chairman brought up HB 1243 in the House with the Senate amendments for Representative Gallego to discuss. Representative Turner objected that three of the amendments were not closely related enough to the main bill for further consideration on the floor.

When called down to discuss the objection, Representative Burt Solomons, acting Chairman and Republican from Carrollton, can be heard on the video footage telling Turner that his objection to the amendments needs to be withdrawn temporarily to which Turner responded, “You need to temporarily withdraw your bill so I can pass my bill.”

Fifteen minutes later, both the bill and point of order were withdrawn and other bills were debated.

HB 1243 was again brought up for consideration at 11:34 p.m., just a mere 26 minutes before the deadline. The chair recognized Turner's original objection, overruled it, saying a detailed explanation of the ruling would be in the House journal.

Turner spent another 10 minutes quibbling with Chairman Solomons about the details of his objection and the decision to overrule it.

With 16 minutes to pass the bill, Representative Gallego finally got his chance to discuss the amendments with members, said that there was a broad base of support for the bill, and moved for a motion to accept the amendments and pass the bill to Governor Perry.

Representative Turner then offered an alternate option: send the bill to go to Conference Committee. Quoting from the bill, he“to recover the cost for `the rebates in amendment 3` they can go up 20 cents per month on residential customers; they can go up two dollars per month for commercial customers; they can go up $20 per month for industrial customers,” Turner said. “When you vote for this bill, understand that you are voting to increase the electricity bills of the residential consumers.”

Ultimately, Turner failed to get the bill sent to committee, and 90 members of the House voted in favor of accepting the Senate amendments at 11:55 p.m.. One minute until deadline and Gallego wanted to go to conference because that was his only choice to keep the bill alive and Representative Turner refused to let the bill go to conference.

Throughout the entire House meeting and even in an interview, Turner explained his actions as, “representing his district,” which according to a 2000 Census 26 percent of the population live at or below the federal poverty line. “I certainly support solar energy,” said Representative Turner, but he added, “If it's going to increase the cost of electricity where it achieves an adverse outcome for `my constituency`, I'm not going to support it.”

But, Gallego who wrote HB 1243 and pushed for its passage, has a district, according to the same 2000 census, with 32 percent of the population living in poverty. Furthermore, according to that census, Senator Troy Fraser, a Republican from Marble Falls, who authored SB 545 had a constituency with 18 percent living in poverty.

"My folks, the district that I represent, definitely have more need statistically than his does," said Gallego. "My parents are both on a fixed income," he continued. "Frankly the argument that Mr. Turner makes `about the cost` is laughable."

Senator Fraser was not available for comment.

Representative Patrick Rose, a Democrat from Austin, asked Turner if he realized he was killing a bill for consumers, to which Representative Turner replied, “I am not killing a bill for consumers. I am choosing not to abuse the process to which I'm a part of.”

Turner continued, “I wanted people to go to conference; they chose not to. That was their choice, not mine.”

After another speech on the floor by Turner, time had run out for the bill. An interest was taken in suspending the rules and allowing the bill more time because other bills that could have been taken up after midnight had been discussed before the solar bill with a midnight deadline. That effort failed.

"There were motions that were going to be made to suspend the rules because this one was clearly the chair's error and that chair was trying to fix it, but in the final analysis, it didn't allow the bill more time," said Gallego.

According to Gallego, there were a couple of errors made. The first was that other bills were brought up instead of HB 1243 when they were not on as strict of a deadline. Another was that an effort to accept the amendments in a motion to concur was not followed immediately after Turner's second objection failed.

Representative Jim Dunnam, a Democrat from Moody, brought up the latter point, but upon reviewing the footage of the chamber, Gallego had asked for the bill to go to committee instead of passing because of time constraints.

Representative Turner raised his final objection that time had run out for consideration of Senate amendments. It was sustained and the bill, HB 1243, died along with incentives for solar energy in Texas.

"Mr. Turner killed the only pro-consumer electric bill this session," said Gallego.


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