Randomly attending committee meetings at the Capitol is a bit like channel-surfing. You might get to see a passionate debate on bilingual education, or you find yourself nodding off to mind-numbing testimony about school finance. Once in a while, you stumble into a committee meeting that resembles a reality show where someone else's personal pain is the entertainment.
This morning's Senate Business and Commerce Committee meeting could have been broadcast as "Jobs That Suck," sponsored by Atmos Energy, the gas company serving Lubbock, Plainview and a host of other communities in North Texas. Thanks to Atmos, Sen. Kevin Elitife laid out a bill ending the Gas Reliability Infrastructure Program, which was created to allow gas companies to automatically charge consumers for maintaining infrastructure. "GRIP" was intended to encourage investment in pipeline safety and reliability. Lo and behold, it was recently discovered that the geniuses at Atmos charged first-class airfare to Nantucket, retirement gifts from Golfsmith and $391 per per person dinners at III Forks -- among many other things -- to consumers through "GRIP."
Pity poor Bill Guy, an Atmos government relations manager based in Lubbock. Somehow he drew the black bean to testify against the bill on behalf of his company. First, outraged committee member read from the list of questionable expenses -- $400 for a limo ride from a hotel to an airport; $485 for "employee welfare" in the form of a Ducks Unlimited Stamp Collection, Swiss army knife and Luminox Taser Night Diver; $5,000 for Dallas Symphony tickets -- that were passed on to consumers. Next, a host of city officials testified about how Atmos' abuse of the "GRIP" expenses were hurting their constituents.
Then it was Guy's turn to testify. "There were some problems," he acknowledged, a bit half-heartedly. "But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater."
Why hasn't the company offered any amendments that would fix the bill and end abuses, as Eltife requested, committee chair Troy Fraser demanded. "You hired a bunch of lobbyists and tried to go out and kill this bill," Fraser added.
For next 10 minutes -- surely the longest 10 minutes in Guy's life -- a torrent of outrage flowed from committee members. When did the company realize that it was wrong to charge consumers for first-class airfare for spouses? wondered Leticia Van De Putte. "When they got caught," retorted Eltife.
Finally, Kirk Watson asked Guy: "Did you get to go on any of these trips? " No, Guy responded. "Well, bless your heart," Watson said, shaking his head.
Bells announcing the Senate's morning session granted Guy a reprieve.
Later, Eltife said he had met with three Atmos senior executives, who he believed decided to kill his bill rather than offer substantive amendments. "The three guys I met with were not in the room," Eltife told me. "They sent this poor guy to take the heat."
I'm hoping Guy has some of those free Southwest drink coupons for his flight home. He sure isn't going to be able to expense anything.
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