Although an important bill assistance program has ended, low-income ratepayers should continue to have access to other important protections thanks to legislation now pending in Austin.

Sponsored by state Sen. John Whitmire and Rep. Chris Paddie, Senate Bill 1976 is intended to protect electric and telecommunications customers of limited means. The bill cleared some of the last important legislative hurdles this week.

In specific terms, SB 1976 calls upon the Health and Human Services Commission to continue working with the Public Utility Commission to identify eligible low-income ratepayers.  With this assistance, the PUC can then ensure those ratepayers get help paying late fees and can access other important protections.

The legislation became important after the depletion in 2016 of the System Benefit Fund, which for years financed electric bill discounts for the poorest Texans. To identify those eligible customers, the PUC accessed data provided by the HHSC.

But with the depletion of the System Benefit Fund, questions arose as to whether the PUC could continue accessing the HHSC data. And without it, the PUC could not ensure poor ratepayers could access other important customer protections unrelated to the System Benefit Fund — such as the right to pay security deposits in two installments and to obtain waivers on late fees.

SB 1976 fixes this problem by directing the HHSC to continue coordinating with the PUC. By extension, the legislation also leaves the door open for the provision of additional benefits to low-income Texans in the future.  The bill likewise makes it possible for retail electric providers to offer their own customer service protections — including bill discounts — at the retail electric providers’ discretion.

SB 1976 has been given the green light by the Texas House and Senate, and now heads to Gov. Greg Abbot for his signature.

— R.A. Dyer