Opinion

Texas state senators scold the chairwoman of the Public Utility Commission for ‘complacency’

During a hearing, they remind her that she has power and should use it.

DeAnn Walker, chairman of the Public Utility Commission, was berated by state senators of both parties for not using her authority.
DeAnn Walker, chairman of the Public Utility Commission, was berated by state senators of both parties for not using her authority.(Dave Lieber)

In the great hall of the Texas State Senate, where legendary leaders like Bob Bullock and William P. Hobby Jr. once ruled, DeAnn T. Walker looked very small indeed.

Right before your eyes Thursday, on the opening day of legislative hearings, we watched the incredible shrinking chairman of the Public Utility Commission of Texas as she tried to shift blame.

“I’m sorry,” she began. “I’m a little nervous.”

Turns out she had every reason to be. She didn’t have a lot of friends in the room.

She testified before a Senate committee, but the more accurate term is she shifted the blame of last week’s deadly double-snowstorm debacle from the PUC to ERCOT, operators of the state electricity grid. But there’s a problem. She’s the oversight boss of ERCOT and even sits on the board as a non-voting member.

Don’t blame us, she said, when ERCOT was at fault.

Some of the lawmakers didn’t buy it. They told her she had authority, and she needed to use it.

Amen. That’s what The Watchdog has been bellyaching about for years.

Walker was asked by state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, for her reaction to a previous Watchdog report that she had dissolved the PUC’s enforcement division. I’ll tell you what she said in a bit about my story.

Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, was a senator who berated PUC Chairman DeAnn Walker on Feb. 25, 2021.
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, was a senator who berated PUC Chairman DeAnn Walker on Feb. 25, 2021.(Dave Lieber)

The big news, I think, was her retreat as a leader of ERCOT. “I can’t require their members to resign,” including the executive director, she told lawmakers. She has little say over their organization, she said.

“You’re the commissioner for the state of Texas for the Public Utility Commission, chairwoman.,” said Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels. She felt the need to remind her.

“If you believe we have that authority, I’m open to moving forward with it,” Walker said. But claims of passive oversight are not a new thing.

Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Beaumont, said that under the state utility law, “You have complete authority over ERCOT. So I’m having trouble with you mentioning several different times that you lack the authority, that this or that has been delegated to ERCOT.”

“You have authority to ask for emergency operation plans from market participants,” he said. “You have the leverage to compel them to impress you.”

He told her she had the ability to ask the legislature for expanded powers, if needed.

“Have you asked the legislature?” he asked. “Have you asked for anything different?”

“No sir,” she replied. “I don’t think I understood the situation and underlying issues until we’ve lived through this.”

Creighton told her that her failure to use the authority given to her by lawmakers was “a serious problem.”

And what happened when Whitmire asked her about my report on her disbanding the PUC’s enforcement division? Sitting a few feet from Walker on the Senate floor, he waved my story in the air.

“The enforcement division was not dissolved,” she said, a statement that is not true.

“It was moved into the legal division, where we had more attorneys. ... It was not dissolved. We still do enforcement action all the time.”

Whitmire told her that such a move “might not have the profile or the attention or the effectiveness” without the enforcement division imprimatur.

“Why’d you do that?” he asked. “Because there’s more lawyers over there?”

“To have more people working on these issues, yes,” she replied unconvincingly.

Even Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, criticized the small fines that can be levied against companies.

“Y’all don’t have any teeth,” he scolded.

Whitmire, the longest-serving senator, summed it up: “You either have the authority or you don’t.”

He criticized the incredible shrinking PUC chair for not using her “bully pulpit” to communicate with the public during the week of desperation for millions of Texans.

“I’ve got you down as a pretty powerful person,” Whitmire said. “Just your title. Really significant.”

He added what I’ve been saying for years.

“I’m disturbed by — would it be fair to call it complacency?”

More electricity stories from The Watchdog

How you should shop for cheap electricity in Texas in 2021? Very carefully

No surprise Texas’ electricity system is a national laughingstock. Only customers cared, until now

Yo Arizona! Don’t deregulate your electricity market like Texas unless you want games galore

The [Public] Utility Commission has a secret: Regulator quietly dissolves its enforcement division

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Dave Lieber, The Watchdog investigative columnist. Dave has written a hard-hitting newspaper column in Dallas/Fort Worth since 1993. His work appears twice a week. His goal is to save readers time, money and aggravation. In 2019, Dave won top prize in America's largest column-writing contest. The contest judge called his winning entries “models of suspenseful storytelling and public service."

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