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Capital Highlights

Pitch made for new power plants


Lt. Gov Dan Patrick joined with the world’s largest investment firm to pitch investors on building natural gas power plants in Texas at a summit held last week in Houston.

Patrick and BlackRock CEO Larry Fink shared the stage as they attempted to persuade investors to take advantage of $10 billion in incentives and bonuses provided by the state after voters approved a constitutional amendment last November, kut.org reported.

“We estimate in this room there’s $2.2 trillion,” Fink told the crowd. “We only have to put $10 billion to work, so can we get it done? Can we start raising hands?”

While Patrick remained optimistic the plan would attract investors interested in building new power plants, others aren’t so sure.

Ed Hirs, an energy economist at the University of Houston, told kut.org that the way the Texas power market is structured won’t necessarily provide a steady return to power plant operators.

“If you’ve got $2 trillion worth of investors and they’re looking for a deal ... they wouldn’t have had this summit; there would already be power plants being built,” he said. “All of these guys are sharks. They're not going to miss an opportunity to make a profit.”


New law increases sentences for human smugglers

A state law that increases the minimum sentence from two years to 10 years for people convicted of smuggling immigrants or harboring them illegally went into effect last week.

The Texas Tribune reported SB4 was one of three immigration-related bills signed into law late last year. Other measures provide state money for construction of barriers along the Texas-Mexico border and make it a state crime to illegally cross the border from Mexico.

The latter measure is being challenged in court by the U.S. Department of Justice, El Paso County and immigrant rights groups.

"This increase in policing and increased criminalization is going to further exacerbate the overcrowding of our jails," said David Stout, an El Paso County commissioner.


Ten counties exceed tougher soot standards

Tougher rules aimed at reducing particulate matter in the air went into effect last week, reducing the amount of what is commonly called soot permitted in the air from 12 to 9 micrograms per cubic meter annually.

It is the first change in the limits since 2012. The soot can cause lung and throat irritation, aggravate asthma and cause other ailments, the Tribune reported.

According to data from the Environmental Protection Agency, 10 Texas counties have particulate matter levels that exceed the new standard – Dallas, Harris, Tarrant, Travis, El Paso, Webb, Hidalgo, Cameron, Kleberg and Bowie.

The EPA will take about two years to officially declare which regions meet the new standards and which don’t. States will then have at least three years to create a plan to come into compliance.

“This final air quality standard will save lives and make all people healthier, especially within America’s most vulnerable and overburdened communities,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a press release. Industry groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have criticized the new rule.


Paxton attorneys seek dismissal of securities fraud charges

Ahead of a pretrial hearing this week, attorneys for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton are seeking to have state securities charges dismissed, saying nine years of delay have denied his constitutional right to a speedy trial, the Texas Standard reported.

Paxton was indicted in July 2015 with a trial in Houston now set for April 15. Factors delaying that trial include repeated changes of venue and judges, disputes over pay for special prosecutors and the COVID-19 pandemic, among other factors.

One of the special prosecutors downplayed the motion.

“I don’t think there’s much to it,” Kent Schaffer said. “Many of the delays were caused by things that they did, whether it was appeals, working in conjunction with Collin County to cut off funding, which necessitated numerous court hearings, motions, and appeals. So, they kind of brought it on themselves.”

Meanwhile, the state is on the hook for more than $700,000 in legal bills in Paxton’s whistleblower case. He is being sued by four former top aides for wrongful termination. Paxton has denied all wrongdoing in that case.


Bitcoin mine prompts noise complaints

A 300-megawatt Bitcoin mine near Granbury is prompting a spate of noise complaints from the fans used to cool the huge network of computer servers used in the crypto currency process, the Texas Standard reported. Since the plant began operating last year, residents have complained about an “incessant din,” Time magazine reported.

“My citizens are suffering,” said Hood County Constable John Shirley. 

According to earthjustice.org, five of the largest Bitcoin mines in the country are located in Texas. The largest is Riot Platforms in Rockdale, which has garnered attention for receiving multi-million-dollar refunds from the state for voluntarily reducing energy use during times of peak consumption.


Upcoming solar eclipse luring tourists

The April 8 total solar eclipse could prove to be a major tourist draw for small towns in its path in the state, The Dallas Morning News reported. The town of Hillsboro, 60 miles south of Dallas, has temporarily renamed itself Eclipseboro and ordered 50,000 pairs of eclipse glasses as it gears up for its population to temporarily swell during the event. The city of about 8,000 is expected to receive anywhere from 15,000 to 60,000 visitors, and its nine hotels have been mostly booked for a year.

While the city doesn’t expect to make a profit, given what it is spending on health, safety and infrastructure, local businesses stand to profit.  Greenville, Ennis, Canton and other small North Texas cities are also making plans to take advantage of visitors coming to view the eclipse.

Gary Borders is a veteran award-winning Texas journalist. He published a number of community newspapers in Texas during a 30-year span, including in Longview, Fort Stockton, Nacogdoches, Lufkin and Cedar Park. Email: gborders@texaspress.com.


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