Houston Chronicle. March 10, 2021.

Editorial: ERCOT, PUC can’t just shrug off $16 billion in overcharges during the Texas blackout

When we make a mistake, most of us were taught to own it and do what we could to set things right.

“Most of us” does not appear to include the Public Utility Commission, whose commissioners have rebuffed calls to reverse a grave error during the Texas deep freeze that has resulted in in electricity overcharges totaling $16 billion, a staggering sum that has enriched some players in the energy market and beggared others, and led to higher bills for residents, businesses and other end users, too.

The overcharge stemmed from a mistake made by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the nonprofit that manages Texas’ electric grid, when it kept energy prices at the highest level allowable — $9,000 per megawatt hour — for 32 hours longer than it should have.

The emergency pricing is intended as a gold-plated carrot to lure more generators into the market in crisis situations where demand far outpaces power supply. But an independent market monitor says ERCOT failed to restore the price to lower levels when the emergency passed and recommended that the overcharges billed to retail electric providers and others after that time be reversed.

The fallout over the statewide power failure that left 4 million Texans shivering in arctic temperatures has been swift.

The president of ERCOT has been ousted. The three-member Public Utility Commission, appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott to oversee ERCOT, is down to one member after the chairwoman and another commissioner resigned.

The last man standing, Arthur D’Andrea, is now serving as chairman and has refused to make amends in a way that will ease the pain already traumatized Texans will feel as the higher bills come due.

D’Andrea explained it’s “nearly impossible to unscramble this sort of egg” in an unregulated market as complex as Texas’. Generators relied on the high prices to produce the extra energy, and wholesalers who bought it at high prices did so intending to pass on those costs to their own buyers. Trying to divest the profits from the various stages of the supply chain would be a nightmare, D’Andrea suggested.

To his credit — and we rarely find reason to say that — Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has called BS on that conclusion, and demanded that PUC and ERCOT correct their mistakes:

“It will ultimately benefit consumers and is one important step we can take now to begin to fix what went wrong in the storm.”

So how did this happen? ERCOT declared an emergency on Monday, Feb. 15, in the early hours of Winter Storm Uri, once it became clear that the cold was knocking offline large chunks of the system’s generating capacity even as demand for electricity surged. The emergency meant that ordinary limits on what electricity generators could charge wholesale suppliers were out the window. Ordinarily, prices are well below $100 per megawatt hour.

After a delay tied to a computer error, the shockingly high prices began working to induce generators to pull out every stop — extra crews, overtime, you name it — to produce more power. This is the feature of Texas’ unregulated energy market that free-marketers cheer: It creates an opportunity for market-based solutions even during life-threatening crises.

But there’s a catch. The extraordinary prices are supposed to be permitted only as long as they are needed. The minute the crisis is over, ERCOT is supposed to reinstate regular price limits, lest consumers be left at the mercy of price-gouging.

ERCOT’s failure to lower sky high prices is expected to lead to $1.5 billion in higher electric bills for last month.

Just how and why ERCOT made such a catastrophically bad call is a mystery.

“We’re left with two possibilities here,” says University of Houston energy fellow Ed Hirs. “Either they’re incompetent or dishonest.”

Whatever the reason, Texans deserve answers. We urge lawmakers, including Texas House and Senate committees investigating the blackout, to find them.

We ask the same of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which is examining pricing and other aspects of the near-collapse of the Texas electric grid.

We’re glad to see Patrick is asking questions and demanding that the PUC follow the law, which gives ERCOT 30 days to reset prices. It’s a hard knot to untangle but it’s the only fair thing to do.

The ouster of a handful of political appointees isn’t enough. Officials responsible for the errors deserve to be held accountable, including Abbott, who has yet to own up to his role in the crisis.

Texas consumers grossly overcharged for electricity deserve relief. No state that grievously fails its people should be allowed to stick them with the bill, too.

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San Antonio Express-News. March 9, 2021.

Editorial: On Medicaid, Texas defies logic, fiscally and morally

What is more tragic, that Texas leads the nation in the uninsured, or that state lawmakers have refused to address this by expanding Medicaid?

This compounding failure is as maddening as it is infuriating. There is simply no compelling reason for Texas to refuse to expand Medicaid, and yet here we are, stuck with the highest uninsured rate in the nation because the majority of Republican lawmakers just can’t go there. It is doubly tragic.

The numbers speak for themselves. Before the pandemic, Texas had an uninsured rate of 18.4 percent. That’s almost certainly risen with unemployment in the time of COVID. But if Texas expanded Medicaid to adults who earn 138 percent above the poverty line — roughly $17,774 for an individual or $36,570 for a family of four — then some 1.3 million people would have access to health care.

But wait, there’s more. If the state would expand Medicaid it would unlock about $5.4 billion in federal dollars, or 90 percent of the cost.

And the Perryman Group, an economics firm, recently estimated Medicaid expansion would generate $1.95 in economic benefit for every dollar Texas invests in expansion. This would translate to about $2.5 billion for Texas and another $2 billion to local governments over the next biennium.

This is what the majority of Texans want. A January poll from the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs found 69 percent of respondents support expanding Medicaid here under the Affordable Care Act.

In other words, expanding Medicaid would provide coverage to more than 1 million Texans, reduce the state’s uninsured rate, return federal dollars to Texas, and generate state and local tax dollars while having the support of the majority of Texans — and lawmakers can’t find a way to act? They can’t boldly go where other “red” states such as Arizona, Arkansas and Oklahoma have gone before?

And on the other side of this argument is, well, nothing. Flimsy rhetoric about how having health insurance does not ensure quality health care or needing to find a “conservative” way forward on expanding Medicaid.

Nonsense. As state Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, said last month, “If you take all the politics out of it, it’s really a bad decision not to access the federal dollars.”

Larson recently filed legislation to push for Medicaid expansion, putting the issue on the ballot as a constitutional amendment. But as the saying goes, leadership can be a lonely place. It’s unlikely such a bill could pass the Senate, and even if it did, Gov. Greg Abbott might veto it. This is Texas, after all, which has led the fight to unravel the Affordable Care Act.

Larson has argued not expanding Medicaid is bad business.

“If you are paying into a system in D.C.,” he said, “and you’re not pulling the money back in, but you’re raising taxes at the local level to offset that money you’re paying in, I think that’s fiscally irresponsible. The fiscally responsible thing to do is trying to maximize, like we do in every other revenue stream in the state budget.”

He’s right. It is fiscally irresponsible to do nothing. It’s also inhumane. About 5.2 million Texans lacked health insurance before the pandemic. That’s 5.2 million people who are likely to put off routine care only to end up in emergency rooms. Lawmakers could change this for more than 1 million Texans if they had the courage, and sense, to expand Medicaid. Why is it so hard to do the obvious right thing?

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Gainesville Daily Register. March 11, 2021.

Editorial: Carving out a post office legacy

When Mary Carpenter took over the Gainesville post office just five years after its founding, she would’ve been one of a tiny minority of female postmasters ensuring that the country’s mail was carried safely to its destination. But she became part of a longstanding legacy of women serving the U.S. public through work in the postal service.

This March, for Women’s History Month, the Register’s editorial board decided to take a brief look at one of the influential women that helped shape Gainesville’s history. Carpenter was the city’s first female postmaster, but she was soon followed by her daughter Kate Brown. Brown assumed the postmaster’s role in 1884 and the next year married W.W. Howeth, founder of what today is Gainesville’s oldest continuously operating business.

Carpenter took over the post office in about 1857, after it had had a bit of a rough start. Its first postmaster left the post after a few months and went to California “to seek his fortune in the gold fields,” according to information provided by the Morton Museum of Cooke County. The second Gainesville postmaster was a shopkeeper who housed the post office in his store on the town square for about four years. Carpenter moved it from there to the living room in her home at Pecan and Dixon streets. She ran the local postal service for more than 25 years.

Though we don’t give it a second thought now, it was unusual at the time for a woman to serve as postmaster. Before the late 19th century, few women were appointed to the position; in early 1862, U.S. Postal Service records show, there were just 411 women out of 28,586 total postmasters — about 1.4%. The U.S. Postmaster General in 1814 even suggested appointing a female postmaster was illegal, though the law he cited didn’t specify anything about appointing women and it’s thought he made the suggestion “from political rancor,” a USPS historical account states.

But by the end of the 19th century, women managed about 10% of the country’s 70,000 post offices, and ever since, plenty of women have held the title of Gainesville postmaster. A USPS list of local postmasters appointed since 1979 shows at least four, including current Postmaster Louisa A. Bell, as well as one woman who held the title of officer-in-charge, essentially an acting postmaster position. As of 2019, the Postal Service workforce included about 288,000 women, or 45% of all USPS employees.

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Abilene Reporter-News. March 12, 2021.

Editorial: A pandemic year: What we learned about ourselves

On this Sunday a year ago, we had no idea about our next steps regarding COVID-19.

The annual roundup of snakes rattled on in Sweetwater and, for the moment, the Outlaws & Legends Music Festival was on for its 10th anniversary.

But students’ return from spring break was delayed. We had no idea that delay would last into August.

Our world changed the week of March 9.

A year later, there still is unknown. But our steps in retreat, as we hunkered down at home and backed off contact with other people, have been replaced with steps forward. We are seeing progress, though the argument has been made that we should walk and not run.

Taylor County faced three recognizable spikes — the initial surge as the first cases and deaths cascaded; the mid-summer surge that most saw coming; and the 100-day surge beginning just before Halloween until nearly the end of January. The latter was the worst, when we had the most deaths, most cases and the most hospital beds filled with COVID-19 patients.

Restrictions again were imposed.

Throughout the pandemic, there has been the battle between our personal health and our economic well-being. We all suffered when businesses closed or reduced their services. Our inconveniences, such as waiting in a drive-thru line or having Starbucks close at 4 p.m., were minor compared to owners worrying about their survival and employers without jobs.

Many churchgoers willingly “attended” services at home, using their computers, laptops or cellphones. Some believed, however, their freedom of religion was at risk.

Here, the leadership of our health community and churches helped. When they urged residents to do their part to keep us healthy, more people listened. Politics was taken out of the equation.

Still, some refused to join the effort. We’ll tough it out. Deaths? Lots of people die of the flu every year.

(For comparison, the CDC estimated between 24,000 and 62,000 flu deaths during the 2019-20 season; we are near 525,000 COVID-19 deaths)

The debate spread to urban vs. rural. We in Taylor County believed the severest of restrictions should not apply here. When bars were shut down, those wanting to drink publicly went to restaurants with bar service. Instead of spreading out, they packed places.

Our City Council sent a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott telling him give us a break..

Yet, when this month he announced lifting capacity and face mask restrictions, he was cheered and booed.

The pandemic put us in a no-win situation.

As we look back today at likely the most eventful year in our lives (to you younger folks, we don’t wish this again on you), we hope more wins are ahead.

Sad stories have been told. But many uplifting stories have been, too.

Perhaps those who focused only on themselves came out OK.

But we know that those who focused on others — from healthcare workers to good neighbors — absolutely did.

END