Activists push for bill offering direct payments to Texans hurt by freeze

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Advocacy groups including Workers Defense Action Fund, the ACLU of Texas, and MOVE Texas gathered in a virtual town hall Thursday to make noise for the POWER Act, a bill that would provide between $1,000 to $2,500 to Texans affected by the February snowstorm. 

“Part of climate policy-making is also our response to climate emergencies and the relief that people need,” said Alán M. de León, a Houston advocacy organizer with the voter registration group MOVE Texas. “Being out of work for two weeks was enough, in the middle of the winter storm, to put a lot of residents in a position of facing eviction.” 

Funding for the direct payments would be provided by the state’s Economic Stabilization Fund, better known as the Rainy Day Fund. Those funds would then be distributed to local governments to offer to residents. Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar reported in December that the Rainy Day Fund was sitting on $10.7 billion. 

The bill, carried by Houston state Rep. Ana Hernandez, ensures that only residents who were affected by the snowstorm and who are making 60 percent of the median income in their area would be eligible to receive the recovery money. 

“Right now, what we need is for people across Texas to make noise, to make sure the POWER Act gets a committee hearing,” said ACLU of Texas Senior Policy & Advocacy Strategist Matthew Simpson. “Along with getting the ball rolling on direct payments to Texans, this also injects into the conversation more than just payouts to industry.”

Simpson said the legislature was too focused on who needs to be fired from the Public Utility Commission, and which industries with a stake in the state electrical grid need money. 

Mike Siegel, a former congressional candidate now serving as political director for the recently formed civic engagement group Register2Vote, said too many Texans suffered while power companies made profits. 

“They deregulated our electricity,” Siegel said of state leaders. “They turned over this basic human need, the ability to turn on the lights, to turn on the heat, and they gave it to the private market. The companies that are trying to make as much money as possible off of our basic human needs.”

Texans who were deeply affected by the freeze also joined the virtual town hall to tell their stories. 

“We experienced the horror of not having water for weeks in our home,” said Carolyn Rivera, a community advocate from Houston. “We were not able to bathe, clean, cook, or eliminate waste from our bodies properly. During the freeze, one neighbor died in his home.”

Rivera told the story of one neighbor with a 10-year-old son who underwent brain surgery last year and suffered from seizures when stressed. 

“His mother could only afford to stay in a hotel for about three days,” Rivera said. “She was without water for about two weeks.”

Almost 200 people died as a result of the February snowstorm, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis.

Despite stories of mass evictions occurring throughout the state, the Texas Supreme Court allowed a CDC eviction moratorium to expire earlier this week. Worse, a Texas House Urban Affairs Committee released this week found that only 250 out of 176,000 Texans who applied for the state-run rental assistance program have actually received payments

Photo: Matthew T Rader / Wikimedia Commons

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